What to say to someone whose spouse or beloved has just died

It has been a few months since Susan died. Over 300 persons attended her funeral and many thousands have visited her blog. I have been sheltered a little bit from public interactions, first by taking some time off work, and by spending more days and weeks with my two sons. As Susan was very open about her illness and coming death, and as I was writing when I could about my own experience with her, it was safe to say that it was a public affair. Many people heard about her death through Facebook or her blog. When I was requesting time away from work, I was asked by an administrator if it was okay to inform my department chair. (I work at a university and the chair is kind of like my boss, but without much or any real power.) When I told people that Susan was ill 18 months ago, I was confronted by the same question around secrecy. I had asked the department to inform people that Susan had died. It wasn’t a secret.

For me, this just seemed like the right thing to do. It would explain why I was away, and it would give people some time to gather their own thoughts about any number of things around death and dying and grief. I also did not want to go through the task of informing people firsthand when I encountered them. Though not as tiring as when Susan was first diagnosed, I felt it would be easier for anyone who encountered me, and for me as well.

I received some beautiful emails over the first weeks. Lovely, touching, heartfelt. I responded to them all. It was healthy for me to do that, as it helped me connect with people who cared about Susan and me. I liked that part. I also received a few cards in the postal mail! That was also very pleasant and helpful. I have not responded to those people just yet.

Running into people since Susan died, I have experienced an array of responses from them. Many people who wrote emails to me confessed that they didn’t know what to say and were thus explaining why their note was so late in coming. So in the spirit of all that Susan was doing, I have decided to write down some of my thoughts on the matter of what to say to someone whose spouse or lover or partner has just died. This post follows up on one by Susan and one by me on sharing the news of a terminal illness. Some of these suggestions are meant to be a first response, something to say that is kind, and to allow a bit of time to assess the needs and state of the bereaved person, and to collect one’s own emotions. For some, finding the appropriate words comes naturally, for others, like me, I need a bit of prethinking. These, of course, are my opinions on my situation and might not be for everyone.

I have to admit I have been a poor responder in the past to hearing the news from someone about the death of their loved one. I have opened my mouth and a whole bunch of anxious, nervous, stupid words came out of my mouth. Or I avoided talking about it, or avoided the person all together. I don’t want anyone to replay any of our interactions and wonder if they misspoke, or acted weird. I don’t judge and I am forgiving! This whole death and dying topic is treated like an elective that we can avoid taking and still graduate with a degree in living.

  • If you know someone has lost a lover or spouse, here are some things that were helpful for me to hear when I ran into people in public spaces

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan. I am so sorry to hear the news.”

This was the most common reply. We often think of the word sorry to mean “to apologize” and in that context we think the other person is to blame or somehow responsible. As in, “I’m sorry I spilled coffee all over your new pants.” I recently told someone I was sorry for the hardship that their spouse was enduring with a cancer treatment and they replied with, “ That’s okay, it’s not your fault.” To which I had to explain my use of the word sorry. So, depending on how one interprets the word sorry, I think maybe sad is a better word.

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan, I am saddened to hear of your loss.”

“I heard about Susan’s death. It is so sad, for everyone. How are her sons?”

I heard these a few times. To which I often replied, “Yes, it is sad, it really sucks, for her and all of us.”

“Oh Roy, I read about Susan, I can only imagine what you are going through, that this is an extremely difficult time for you. I am so sorry for your loss.”

This one is pretty good! Expressing that you can imagine what I must be going through suggests a level of empathy, a capacity to imagine my grief. Calling it a difficult time is a pretty good adjective.

“She was an exceptional person. You must be missing her so much.”

Either one of those on its own is a kind thing to say. And both statements are not about the person speaking, but rather about the deceased and the bereaved. This is the type of thing one says when they knew the deceased person really well. I think one can express their own longing for the dead person after acknowledging the grieving person’s longing. And oh yes, I am missing her, dearly! If you want to see me cry on the spot, you can say: “you must be missing her”.

A few weeks ago, I walked across the street from Susan’s home in Montreal to knock on the one door that housed a friendly family. The neighbour knew about Susan, had spoken to her over the summer as Susan watered her garden. The woman was wondering where we were but had no way to get in touch with us. I told her Susan had died. Then, without really saying anything, she threw her arms around me and gave me the kindest hug. She didn’t have words. That might be the best response yet.

Offering to help in any way is a most gracious ending to the conversation. Just be sure to honour that offer should the person contact you.

And please please, mentioned the dead person at the beginning of the conversation. I’ve had numerous conversations, in which a person starts in about the weather and the rain and how many errands they ran that day, and then as an afterthought, they offer condolences. That’s hard, because as you are talking I don’t know if you know that Susan died, and I’m trying to think of ways to tell you while you chat about the humidity. I don’t feel present in the space when this type of avoidance is happening. The conversation running in my head is completely opposite to whatever you are saying. And I’m standing there, listening, and waiting to either to tell you the news, or for you to acknowledge her death.

If you yourself have lost a spouse, I think this is helpful information, but not right off the top. Being a good listener is more important. Mentioning that your spouse also died and then offering to be there for additional conversations is a nice closing gesture. I have had a few people tell me that their spouse died, months or years prior. And this helps deepen a connection, and it helps me rehear their words.

  • Things NOT to say when you already know that someone has died and you run into their spouse at the grocery store or the gym

“I can’t imagine what you are going through.”

This phrase is highly subjective. And some people may not have any problem hearing that response. But to me, this phrase makes it sound like you are incapable of empathy and it makes me feel incredibly alone in that moment. I wonder if people who say they can’t imagine what I am going through really mean “I am terrified of my partner dying and I hope I never have to think about it.” Because I feel even the most creatively challenged person has some capacity to imagine a significant loss. Better for me to hear: “I can only imagine how you feel.” In that way I have a sense that you are making the effort to empathize. The important word in that sentiment is “only”. If you say you can imagine what I am going through, it might sound presumptuous. But by saying you can “only imagine” I feel it suggests a certain effort on your part without implying that you actually know what it is like. And the above rationalization might just read like an unbalanced person whose skin is thin in the moment.

“How are you doing?”

I’ve had this question so many times. How to answer that question? One minute I’m fine, thinking about something wonderful, the next I’m a puddle on the couch, or weeping behind the wheel of my car. Then I’m stable, meditating, managing the grief, then I’m not. After a while, I just told people that I didn’t know how to answer that question. I know, it’s an automatic interrogative right after we say someone’s name in almost all of our greetings. Hard to catch oneself. I found “How is your day going?” to be a better alternative. Grieving is not linear. It’s not a nice sloped landing strip. It’s fraught with unexpected twists and turns and numerous black holes.

  • Things NOT to say when you are just hearing for the first time that someone’s partner has died but you knew they were ill

“Well, at least you had 18 months together.”

Yes, except I don’t need to be reminded to be grateful that she outlived her expected prognosis by a few months.

“Shit happens.”

Yes, a direct quote heard just last week. I know shit happens, but that’s not what I need to hear.

“God has a new angel. God works in mysterious ways. All part of God’s plan.”

I suppose if you know the person was devoutly religious this could be helpful. But for me as part Buddhist, part agnostic, part Susanist, this sounds condescending and completely fake. It doesn’t feel like it is from the heart. To be honest, I’d rather hear “Shit happens.”

“She is in a better place.”

She was alive, vibrant, positive, super cheerful, kind, brilliant, fit, beautiful, funny, fully looking ahead to numerous creative projects, contributing to the world, and enjoying her life. Hearing someone tell me she is in a better place denies all of that. Maybe there is a better place, but from my vantage point it was a lot to lose. It does nothing to make me feel better and actually makes me feel worse.

  • What to say when blindsided by the news of someone’s spouse dying

This one has a bit more latitude but I think there are some general replies that everyone could write down and put in that little wallet where one keeps their bank card and driver’s license. Take it out every once in a while and practice saying them. Because even in spite of all our connectedness through the online world, there are times when one won’t hear about every death. So chances are you’ll be buying unsweetened soya milk at the IGA and someone you haven’t seen in a while will pass by and you’ll ask them how they are, or what’s new, and they’ll tell you that their partner or lover died recently.

“Oh no, that is awful news. I had no idea. I am so sorry. You must be hurting a lot.”

“Oh boy that sounds so tough and so sad. I hope you have family or friends close by.”

If the bereaved person gives you some details about the deceased or their death, just listen. Don’t feel pressure to respond and make it a conversation. Don’t ask questions about the death (What did she die of? How old was she? Did she try CBD oil?). Sometimes questions and conversations are draining. Allow the bereaved person to have your ear. Listen to what they are telling you and it will help you determine your response. Don’t jump into a story of your own, and don’t offer a bunch of advice. If they ask for help or ask a question, then you can respond. If you feel like offering anything then make the offer. If you don’t feel comfortable about offering help, then tell them you hope they grieve well and find whatever they need to make their way through this difficult time.

Someone who did not know Susan or of her illness asked me what I had been up to. I replied: “I am grieving. My beloved long-time partner died a few weeks ago.”

“That’s unfortunate,” was the response. I felt bad for the person, because they had been caught off guard, and without a lot of practice, those are the kinds of things that come out. I responded with, “Yes, it is unfortunate, thank you.” I am not sure if that was a good or not so good thing to say, by either of us. Her comment did surprise me though, as it didn’t make me feel better, but it didn’t sting either.

Other things to avoid saying, in case your filter is damaged and your brain is on cruise control, and maybe avoid in any situation.

“I heard Susan passed away. You look terrible. Are you eating?”

“So, what are you going to do with all your spare time?”

“Are you sad?” (Yes, an actual question asked of me recently.)

Questions in general are sometimes just difficult, no matter what. I have been in conversations with close family or friends and expressed my worries and fears or whatever I might be feeling. They have asked: “What do you need to help with that?” Which is actually a pretty good question because it gives me pause to reflect on an answer. What do I need? I admit often that I don’t know, or perhaps there isn’t any answer. This can lead to some frustration and fatigue, as though I am attempting to solve a puzzle that I don’t have the knowledge for. In my case, the answer is often self-compassion. I need to be kind to myself. And perhaps that can be a nice way to end a conversation with a grieving person. Merely tell them to be kind to themselves. Because in many cases, as a lover or a spouse, they have been the primary caregiver, and have averted many of their own needs to pour love into their partner. I did not neglect myself over the past 18 months, I did my best to take care of my health and to remain Susan’s trusted partner, not just someone who cared for her needs. But I can now feel how the last 18 months chipped away at me, physically, spiritually, and most of all emotionally. And the one person most able to comfort me is no longer available. So being reminded to be compassionate with myself has been a mantra over the previous weeks. People often close off a letter or a conversation with “take care”. And it becomes an unheard imperative. One needs to deliver the message to a grieving person in a direct, loving way, so it is not just a tacked on ending to an email. “Be kind to yourself” feels easier to hear.

  • Knowing that someone has died and then pretending like nothing happened when I run into you

This is the one that is both completely understandable but also the most painful of all. I have been in social areas, like the gym, with people around that know me. Some knew Susan was dying, some did not. Someone asked about her and I told them she had died. The response was polite and kind and fell amongst the many simple things to say to someone. But there were people around us, who knew me by face and had engaged in small talk with me over the years, who heard my brief conversation declaring Susan’s death. None of those people came over afterward. I spent an hour in the gym and those people avoided me. When I say I understand their response, it’s this: we live in a death-phobic culture. We don’t practice what to say, and we don’t process our emotions or understanding of a situation in order to respond in the moment. I get it. We are mostly ignorant. But even knowing those reasons, it still felt awkward. It’s okay to say you overheard me speaking in a public place about the death of Susan, and that you want to recognize the journey I am now taking. It doesn’t have to be a lot. “I heard you talking to so-and-so about the death of your girlfriend, and I’m sorry for your loss.” I would respond with: “Thank you, I appreciate hearing that.” It can be as simple as that. Otherwise, I feel a huge disconnect in the room. Perhaps you might think you are intruding on my private space if you approach me. Now that I am grieving Susan’s death, I think it is worth the risk. I had no idea in the past how much of a difference it makes to hear acknowledgement from others. And, you know, much like an apology, it’s never too late to offer another person your sympathies. There will most likely always be another opportunity. I’ll be at the gym again, you can take some time at home over the days, and think about what to say. Maybe even google a query and find this blog with some suggestions. Or if you are a fan of the TV show Seinfeld, you can channel your inner George Castanza, and when you come up with the perfect response to a previous missed opportunity, in which you didn’t have a good reply, you can wait for a second chance and roll out your well rehearsed words!

To back up my point about it never being too late, I recently expressed condolences to a colleague who lost his sister many years ago. I realised I had avoided him at the time and never spoke about it. He accepted my belated sympathies, and we had a good conversation about death and avoidance. I also got to hear what he was going through at the time, which I appreciated.

  • Honouring Susan

I am sometimes playful with people who have been reading Susan’s blog and know how candid she was. Neither of us like the terms “passed away”, “passed”, “her passing”. So when I hear them used in a conversation about her from someone who knew her, I smile. Sometimes I offer the person the chance to use the word death. I tell them I am the perfect person to practice using the words “death”, “died”, “dying”. One friend took me up on the offer, in the grocery store no less. When I saw her she said: “I heard about Susan’s passing and I want to tell you how sorry I am.” I smiled and made my offer. She paused for a second and rephrased her sentiments. “I heard about Susan’s death and I want to say how sad I am for you and her sons.” Using the word death even changed the content of her condolence! It was more sincere, not sanitized, and in some ways I feel it allowed this person to reach a deeper understanding.

It wasn’t so hard, to say or hear. Susan and I always found those humorous terms to be part of the phobia around talking about death. Susan’s end-of-life event? I have not heard that one yet. If you have read Susan’s blog and learned anything from it, then you can honour her perspective and the gifts she shared with you by calling her death what it was: her death. It honours her life, as well as all the things she was giving to us through her writing on The Passing Away Blog, er I mean, The Death Project.

About Roy Cross

father, professor, filmmaker, writer, alchemist.
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17 Responses to What to say to someone whose spouse or beloved has just died

  1. Thank you. It was very helpful. I, like many others I guess, have found myself to be inarticulate and anxious in a situation like this. I am afraid of hurting the grieving person by a wrong insensitive comment. Sometimes I mean something but the phrase just comes out wrong, self-centered and hurtful. Thank you and I apologize if I have had involuntarily made one of those don’ts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Roy Cross says:

    No apology necessary. As I wrote, I have misspoken to bereaved people throughout my life. It just a matter of talking about death and loss and grieving more. Talking about it helps us process. Having considered an initial response can give one a bit of extra time to process the news at that moment. Sometimes that is all we need, just a moment to collect ourselves, as we hear the news.

    Like

  3. Sun Moon says:

    I can relate to feeling lost for words, not knowing what to say, probably mostly out of fear for creating more hurt, more pain… Thank you for giving us these insights. I learnt from someone very close who lost her child that the worst thing you can do is to avoid talking about the person they lost, like they never existed. She wants to talk about him and about shared memories. You two are so helpful in guiding people around you to become more at ease about talking about death. And you are so right; a warm hug and attentive listening are beautiful and loving acts that can replace many words. Here are my hugs to you on this grey evening, Roy. ~ Marianne

    Liked by 2 people

    • Roy Cross says:

      Yes, listening is so important. Hearing what the bereaved person tells you gives an indication as to how they are feeling and perhaps, what they need to say or hear. Sometimes I feel like talking about Susan, other times I am just tired. Hugs are always welcomed. Just recently, I had a former student approach me in the metro, I didn’t see him coming. He caught my eyes and then I recognised him. He gave me the deepest and longest hug ever. I’m guessing two minutes. I could feel him sobbing. I was too tired to cry but it was heartwarming to be held like that. Thanks for your hugs on this grey evening, Marianne.

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  4. Audrey says:

    Roy, we have never met though I met and know Susan through her family . I came across Susan’s blog almost by accident just after she died. I then went back and read every entry Susan wrote. She exemplified kindness. I then started following your blog.
    By sharing your thoughts and feelings so openly it is hard sometimes to read as your pain and sadness is so real and profound. When you write about the moments you shared with each other I can only imagine the love you had and continue to have for each other.
    Be kind to yourself.
    AD

    Liked by 3 people

    • Roy Cross says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. Susan was indeed kind and compassionate. Not being together has been more difficult than I ever imagined. The comfort I need, and that she provided to me, is not attainable anywhere. I miss her. The permanence of her death is still sinking in. Being kind to myself is not a natural reflex for me so I appreciate all reminders!

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  5. 🙏 thank you.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Roy, that’s helpful. I took a caregiving class years ago where I was told that grieving people should be given the opportunity to talk about their loss, so if I’m just learning about a death, I will sometimes say things like, “May I ask what happened?” I hope that’s not too much of a faux pas, but people do usually seem willing to talk about it. I think the important thing is that our heart is in the right place even if we don’t always get the words right. I love your suggestion to remind grieving people to be kind to themselves. I am just realizing what a death-phobic culture we live in, and I really appreciate Susan’s and your work to bring the fact of death out into the open. Hugs to you.

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    • Roy Cross says:

      Thank you for taking the time to reply. I think there were times when I felt like sharing my story with people, but I have to admit I didn’t always appreciate being asked. Sometimes I felt it was being asked out of the curiosity of the asker and less about offering an ear. I appreciated when people gave me the opportunity to share, but not when I was put on the spot with a question. For me, most questions are instantly tiring. And I am not sure I agree with just having good intentions, a heart in the right place so to speak. I have been quite fragile many times, and I do my best to understand people’s intentions when they are speaking, but boy, sometimes my only reaction is “how do I get out of this conversation before I hear more things that aren’t helpful”. Thanks for the hugs!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ustome says:

    One of the things I find difficult, six months after my Dad died, is that people have stopped asking me. It’s not that I want to be centre of attention or even their empathy. I suppose I want to know they understand that this still REALLY hurts and that my life will never be the same. I’m not OK, even though I’m trying to be. I really connected with the way you described how grief is not linear – so true! – but I know I didn’t understand that until I experienced it myself. Why do we only talk about death when it has happened? Seems to me we would all benefit from preparing for this inescapable in our lives. That’s why I always appreciated Susan’s blog, and yours. Thanks and love to you and your family. X

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roy Cross says:

      I am sad to hear that you are going through such a rough time. There is a perception that grieving has a timeline, and past a certain number of weeks, one is expected to have turned a corner. I feel it is okay to tell others you are not okay when asked. But I found that talking about sorrow and loss has its limits with many people. Most people are quickly saturated. I have found two persons, one of them, unexpected, who have been kind with listening and responding. I, too, did not know how difficult this process would be. I hope you find good listeners. Love to you!

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      • ustome says:

        Thank you Roy. I agree with the limits of some listeners – I understand why that might be but it leaves you in a pretty lonely place. I’m glad you’ve found someone to talk to as that is really important. I love talking about my Dad as it brings him near. I have a pretty good bereavement counsellor who has been very supportive but the sessions are tough. Love to you too, and your family. X

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks much for your honest response, Roy. I will definitely keep what you said in mind in the future when trying to give comfort to grieving people.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. christi72013 says:

    Thank you for your wise words of wisdom. It would take someone like you to help others understand the difficulty of losing a loved one and how to communicate feelings. I wish you well Roy.
    Peace and love Chrissie

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Suze says:

    I am so sorry that I said exactly the wrong thing. forgive me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roy Cross says:

      Not to worry, Suze! I’ve had discussions with others and many people are just fine with the comment about “not imagining”. In one way, it acknowledges the infinite depth of someone’s anguish. I am not sure why it often makes me feel alone. But it doesn’t have the same effect in writing as it does in person.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Suze says:

        I “lost” my friend to cancer this year, and I know the depth of my pain..it was unmanageable at least…and then Susan died a week later. I felt only half a person after those losses…it must have been so much worse for Susan’s sons and you. THAT kind of pain I sincerely hope I can never imagine.

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