It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has just lost someone they love. It is extremely hard to know what to say to someone who has just experienced a tragedy that has blown their lives apart.
I’ve lived through the heart-smashing, life-shattering tragedy when my son, David Glasser, a Phoenix Police Officer, was killed in the line of duty on May 18, 2016. I’ve learned many things about grief and grieving people. I’ve been there and I’m still there.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here – everybody is different and reacts to situations according to their emotional personality. Before Davey’s death, I would have said I was a non-emotional person. Now I find that I am much more emotional with tears filling my eyes regularly when something touches the hurting pieces of my broken heart.
Last week I blogged about having to give a lot of grace to people around me right after Davey was killed, understanding that most people don’t know what to say to those who are left behind after tragedy strikes. I was asked if I could share practical do’s and don’ts I’ve learned from my experience. If you are also a survivor, your reaction and experience with these situations could be the opposite of mine. This is my perspective and I hope it helps someone out there understand what to say – and more importantly, what not to say – to people like me when we are grieving.
I have learned that we all process grief differently and at different speeds. The first time I see a person who has experienced loss, I don’t know where they are in this process so I usually say a very simple “I’m sorry” and include a good memory I have of the person who has passed. Then I stop talking. After they reply, I will say something encouraging – for me, this is usually that I’m praying for them and their family.
Some of the things people said to me right after Davey’s death that hurt were –
“He’s in a better place”. I’m a Christ-follower and I believe this is true but I wasn’t ready to hear it right away. God and I had to do a couple of rounds on this one before I got there. This statement is now one of those that I wait to see if the person grieving says it before will I talk about it.
Other comments that are in the same category are – “God wanted him in heaven”, ” He’s out of this mess”, “The good die young” . Our Blue family has a phrase I heard quite a bit – “If not Dave, then who?” That was painful to hear at first as well because my automatic answer was, “why did it have to be anybody?” I didn’t find any of these helpful until later when I had more time to process the pain and the loss.
“Time heals all wounds” is inaccurate and not helpful. It makes it sound like this will all ‘heal’ and go away. It doesn’t go away. I’ve got a hole in my heart that isn’t going to disappear this side of heaven. I’ve gradually gotten more used to Davey not being here but the hole is still there.
Some people were curious and immediately started asking questions and talking about details of Davey’s death. This was painful to me to the point that I just started ignoring their questions. I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t know how I felt about it yet, and I didn’t appreciate the curiosity. It felt intrusive.
This is a good general rule – let the grieving person guide the conversation. What are they comfortable talking about? I have found that if the loss just happened, the less I say, the better. And, please, if you know me and have said any of these things to me, don’t worry about it. We’ve moved on. It’s hard to know what to say. We’re all learning.
One thing I found helpful right away and it continues to comfort me is when someone tells me they are praying for us. Love this! Davey’s death caused a tsunami of pain and loss to crash over our lives leaving far-reaching ripples even now – 4 1/2 years later. Knowing people from all over are reaching up to God asking for his care and intervention for us is awesome.
In the first week after Davey’s death, hundreds of people said to me, “Please let me know if I can do anything”. I’m the type of person who will ask for help and I found out that some people really meant what they said and went way above and beyond when I asked them to do something for us. Other people were not available to help when I asked so they shouldn’t have said they would – it was just one more thing that hurt.
Many friends provided food for us which was extremely helpful since family and close friends flew in and life was super hectic. Our church family set up a food train for husband and me and our framily (family and friends who are family) set up a food train for our daughter-in-law. We shared all the food and it was extremely helpful since we didn’t have time or energy to shop or cook.
We realized one of the difficult things about receiving food through a food train after a big tragedy is the fact that we just couldn’t talk to all of these people who were delivering food. We were just too emotionally drained. So we set up a cooler outside our door with a Thank You note on it and the food was left inside the cooler. If a friend was dropping off food, they would text us to say the food was there so we could go out and say hi – or not – depending on how we were feeling.
I also learned if you want to do something, then do it. You don’t have to ask in order to do something that is helpful. A group from one of the places we worked drop off laundry baskets full of paper supplies like paper plates, tissues, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper. It was such a great idea! They didn’t ask – they just did it. This was extremely useful with all the family and friends who were in and out of our house that first week.
I also received several personal bouquets of flowers at my home. I love flowers so having these extra bits of color and beauty around my house was helpful to me. It also reminded me how much people cared without having to try to talk to them through the swirling of grief in my brain.
Right after Davey was killed, I realize now that I was living in a fog, with a cloud of pain hanging over me. Some of my conversations were erratic and I did some strange things. Looking back, I am very grateful to all the people who gave me a lot of grace and love until I could start to process the loss and think more rationally. So, while I said before that I had to give other’s grace for what they were saying to me, the people around me had to do the same for me. Thank you.
The final words Davey said to all of us were “love you”. These words were a gift that have guided those of us left behind during the fall-out of his death. These words changed my journey on this road of grief as I witnessed the truly magical power of love in the darkest time of my life.
Thank you, Davey. Miss you.