What to say when someone dies
Words: Sarah Tarca // @tarca
December 9. That’s the date that creeps up on me every year, like a thick, foggy tidal wave, which both overwhelms and suffocates me. In the days leading up to it, I pick fights with my partner, I cry when I can’t open a jar. I feel heavy. And even though it comes about every year, I still forget how much it hurts. As time marches on, it’s true that I breathe just a little easier. Year by year, I find more pockets of air in the fog, but it’s still there. And it probably always will be.
December 9, 2004. That was the date my dad died.
I was 23 when Daryl died. Though technically my stepdad, I never thought of him like that. He burst into my life when I was 14. A soy-drinking, sandalwood-burning intuitive who blew my mind and set me on a path of expansion, self-inquiry and trusting my gut. He was the reason for so many things in my life, supporting me and pushing me just enough so that I believed in myself. He was the one who always said “why not?” which is how I ended up in Sydney working in magazines. And then he died. Leaving behind a motley crew of eight kids and step kids, a broken-hearted wife, and a three-year-old toddler, my sister Lilly.
My experience with death at the time was limited to a few beloved grandparents, and the family dog. And if my own experiences were limited, those around me were almost non-existent. No one I knew had a parent that died, or really anyone for that matter. We were young, parents didn’t die - that’s what old people did. That was a problem for future us, not the Sauv-blanc swigging, blurry-Friday-night-going us.
No one had any experience with death. Death was awkward. Death was yukky. And watching someone grieve is extremely uncomfortable to be around. It was no one’s fault of course, but as people rallied around me in support, saying the “sorrys” we’re taught is the thing to say, I began to hate the word. Sorry? What are you sorry for? You didn’t do anything? You didn’t give him cancer and watch for two years as the disease ate him alive. I didn’t want sorrys. I wanted to punch something, and get very drunk, and scream. I wanted it to be five years later when the grief wasn’t holding me hostage. So I swam in my grief alone, furiously paddling to get the brief bits of air I could.
Everyone showed up for me in the best way that they knew how. But most people just didn’t know how. I took two weeks off of work, because it happened to coincide with holidays. And when I came back, everyone was new-year fresh and the fact that my life was irreparably changed was all but forgotten. Because, life does go on for everyone else. Just not the one who has lost someone. No one asked how I was anymore. I was just the sadder, quieter girl who couldn’t quite get her shit together at work anymore.
At the time I remember wishing there was a guidebook for this stuff. A hand out I could give people to tell them what to say, or how to help me. But there wasn’t anything out there that resonated with me. Until now.
Yasemin Trollope is a ceremony specialist for beginning and end-of-life journeys and the founder, and head funeral guide at Rite of Passage Funerals. She’s one of those people that sparkle from the inside out, touching everyone with her warmth, generosity of spirit, and sunshine. I’m also lucky enough to be able to call her a friend. Just over a year ago she created a business dedicated to celebrating life in death, making funerals an event of warmth and remembrance rather than abject grief. She’s exactly the type of person you want in your corner in life… and also in death.
Yaz has created the exact thing I wished for all those years ago: a guide to knowing what to say when someone dies. And it’s brilliant.
On creating it she says, “being a funeral director, I’m constantly having to get comfortable with holding space for people’s grief, but this is a skill I’ve had to learn and master because we’re just not taught how to deal with grief, or any strong emotions for that matter. As a result, I wanted to share what I’d learned with my beautiful community and really drill down into what’s behind the discomfort so that they can be a better friend to people in need but also discover their own triggers around grief, too.”
You can (and should!) download the full version here. And then share with everyone you know. In my opinion, this should be in everyone’s arsenal, not just for when death happens, but also for life.
Here are a few of our favourite tips:
Listening… really listening, is deceptively hard. Silence is often awkward, especially in grief, so we race to fill the space with words. But you know what? You don’t need to. Words don’t always have a place in grief, because they often don’t soothe at all. Yasemin explains: “The irony in all this is that often you don’t need to say anything at all. Sometimes silence is the best medicine. Just being physically present, holding space and attuning to the nuances of your friend’s grief is all you need to do. Pop the kettle on, sit down for a tea. Do some washing, cooking... whatever. Being a lifeline when someone needs you doesn’t always mean hours of conversation, it’s the silent moments that matter too.”
Keep Showing Up
For me, this was one of the most important things. Once the funeral is over, everyone else’s lives go back to normal. But yours is changed forever. So they forget to check in while every day you wonder how you’ll get through the next 24 hours. Yasemin says, “Now is the time to really show up. Keep being there for them, keep checking in and making time to do small acts of kindness for them as often as you can. Grief doesn’t just go away after the funeral, it’s always there.”
What to say…
Of course we can’t tell you exactly what to say for your person because the truth is, everyone grieves very differently. Know what you can offer, whether it’s practical, spiritual or emotional, and look for ways to connect to the person. It is hard, especially if you’ve never experienced it before, to know what to say. So here’s a few examples from Yasemin.
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I want you to know that I am here for you whenever you need to talk, cry, shout or be distracted. Whatever you need, I’m here.”
“There are no words to ease the pain of what you’re going through but I want you to know that you are loved and supported. I’m here for you.”
“I’m bringing cake around. Put the kettle on and I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
And what not to say…
It’s one thing to not let this fear of what to say stand in the way of your support, but it’s another to roll out unhelpful TV-style clichés. Again, this will be different for everyone but personally my least favourite was “how are you feeling?” because, well like utter crap really. How do you think? And do you really want to know the answer? That I haven’t showered in four days because it seems like too much effort? And that every time I smell sandalwood I burst into tears? There is no good answer here, and your can pretty much guess how they’re feeling. I felt a similar way about “he’s in a better place now” (really? Where is that? How do you know it’s better? Isn’t better surrounded by people you love?) and the old “it all happens for a reason”. But for Yasemin, “Just be strong” is on the no list. “I’m not sure why our society is so obsessed with being strong, I prefer to be real. Whatever that looks like. If it means falling to pieces and standing in your truth, courageously expressing your emotions in all their messy glory, then that’s what I encourage.”
And finally, she leaves us with this piece of wisdom: “Knowing what to say when someone dies is more about heart, less about head. When in doubt, use compassion and love as your guiding forces and you really can’t go wrong.”