By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.

Death is part of everyone’s life. However, coping with grief is one of the most uncomfortable and difficult experiences you will ever face. Fortunately for women, they seem to instinctively know how to offer comfort and consolation. Along with being present, women know how to validate the feelings of someone grieving.

I once heard a story about a little girl who arrived home late from school. Her mother said, “Susie, I was worried about you. Where were you?” Susie responded, “On my way home I saw Mary crying on her front porch because her bike was broken. So, I stopped to help her.” Her mom was impressed, “Susie, did you help Mary fix her bike?” Susie replied, “No, I helped her cry.”

According to author John Gray (“Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus”), women can comfort one another by just understanding the problem. Not so with men. A man needs to solve the problem (or fix it) to feel better. Especially Japanese men, who come from samurai blood (myself included). They have no clue of what to say (or not to say) to offer comfort to a grieving heart.

We took classes in judo, or kendo (in my case, both), but not on experiencing life and the pain that comes with it. We are not taught how to communicate with others through hard times. It’s no wonder people (mostly men) have no idea how to approach a grieving person and often look for the first escape route at the first feeling of awkwardness.

Many men will make the mistake of distancing themselves from the situation until it blows over. However, this can be just as damaging to someone who’s grieving as saying the wrong thing. Not saying anything at all or distancing yourself can also push you further away from a recently widowed loved one.

Death does not happen every day. Nobody expects you to be comfortable talking about death, being around a widow, or discussing loss. It’s swept under the rug in our society. We are taught grieving does not happen in public. It happens in private. So walking on eggshells seem like a good idea since you’re unsure about what to say, or fearful of saying the wrong thing.

But, according to “The Ultimate Guide of What to Say to a Widow and Not Walk on Eggshells” (https://kindnessfp.com/what-to-say-to-a-widow/), “Don’t try to walk on eggshells around a widow. If you try to walk on eggshells, you are going to fall in them. It will be a giant gooey mess.”

Instead, know you are going to crack some eggshells and that is a good thing. Once you crack them, you have a solid foundation to walk on. That solid foundation is what allows space for a better conversation. But just as a samurai warrior trains for battle, you can learn a couple of phrases or questions that will keep you from falling and making a gooey mess.

Sometimes, the easiest way to learn is by learning what you should not do before you learn what you should do. Usually, that’s because the list of “what not to do” is shorter than the “what to do” list. So let’s start with what not to say from a certified grief counselor, Dr. Alejandra Vasquez, JD, CT. (Source: https://www.joincake.com/blog/what-to-say-to-a-grieving-widow/).
Remember, DON’T SAY:

1. “They’re in a better place.”

When a widow hears that their spouse is in a better place, they most likely will wholeheartedly disagree with you. To them, it may not matter that Heaven needs another angel, or that God has a greater plan for them. They’ll tell you that they need them here with them, or that their kids need them just as much. Try saying this alternative phrase instead — “I know it must be hard without them here.” This works because you’re acknowledging that their death has created an irreplaceable void in their lives.

2. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Saying this to someone is very insensitive when they are struggling to comprehend their loss. They may get defensive and ask you to name all the possible reasons you think that their spouse deserved to die. Try saying this alternative phrase instead — “Sometimes we’ll never understand the reasons why things happen the way they do.” This works because it acknowledges that there’s no comprehensible reason for why their loved one had to die.

3. “What are you going to do now?”

This well-intentioned question may be the breaking point for someone who really doesn’t know what they’re going to do now that their spouse has died. They may be feeling overwhelmed with what’s next and how to take care of everything on their own. Try saying this alternative phrase instead — “Let’s talk about how I can help you with the next steps.” This works because you’re offering a solution to them that will help them figure things out instead of sending them into panic mode.

4. “You’ll feel better in time.”

When you say this to someone, you imply that this is only a passing thing. Your loved one may resent how quick you are to dismiss the relationship they once shared with their spouse. Try saying this alternative phrase instead — “Take all the time you need to heal from your pain and grief. I’ll be here for you.” This works because you’re acknowledging that this is one of the most painful experiences of their life and you’ll be there to help them through it.

5.  “They weren’t the greatest anyway.”

Keep the negative comments and opinions to yourself. This is not the right time to give your take on your loved one’s choices in love. Try saying this alternative phrase instead — “I’m sorry that you’re having to go through this pain and suffering.” This works because you’re expressing solidarity with your loved one in their pain and suffering without any negative feedback.

6.  “I know what you’re going through.”

It can be highly offensive to a bereaved widow when you say that you can relate to what they’re going through. Even if you’ve also been widowed and have experienced this type of loss, it can be hurtful when you compare their pain to yours. Try saying this alternative phrase instead — “It must be very difficult for you right now. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” This works because you’re recognizing that it’s not easy losing their spouse without making this about you and what you went through.

The following are examples of what you should say to a grieving widow. It might be a good idea to learn one or two phrases that you’re comfortable with to help you say the right thing. TRY TO SAY:

7.  “I’m sorry for your loss.”

This is the most common and universally accepted phrase that acknowledges their loss without saying too much. When you tell someone “I’m sorry for your loss,” it’s direct and to the point.

8.  “I can’t imagine how you feel.”

When you tell someone that you “can’t” understand how they’re feeling, this opens up the opportunity for dialogue. They may choose to tell you how they’re feeling, or they may acknowledge you with silence. In either instance, allow them to take the lead without forcing the conversation.

9.  “We all share in your grief.”

Expressing that you share in your loved one’s grief is a show of love and support for them. These words are kind and giving without having to say too much.

10.  “Take time for yourself.”

Giving someone permission for a little self-care can do wonders for them, especially when they may be feeling guilty over their spouse’s death. Let them determine how they’ll use their time without filling their schedule with your agenda or ideas.

11.  “You’re doing a great job.”

We all need a little motivation and encouragement to keep us going at times. Offer praise for a job well done without sounding condescending. A simple “You’re doing a great job” reminds them that they’re doing the best that they can under the circumstances.

12.  “They’d be really proud of you.”

This is another way to encourage your loved one to keep moving forward while acknowledging their loss. Find a reason or reasons to say this to your friend every now and then so that they don’t lose hope as they learn to cope with their grief.

13.  “I’m here to help you.”

There’s a huge difference between offering to help someone and doing things to help them. Most people who are grieving find it difficult to ask for and receive help. You can make it easier on them by showing up ready to take on any necessary tasks or chores. You’ll need to practice your assertiveness when it comes to helping your loved one. Try not to take no for an answer in a loving and caring way. Helping your loved one can also come in the form of spiritual and emotional help. It may be that they need a little extra help coping with their loss. Offer to join them in prayer, meditation, or accompanying them to a widow support group.

In conclusion, most experts suggest that you don’t give unsolicited advice or solutions no matter how well-meaning they are. Carefully consider what you’ll say when offering your condolences, whether it’s in person, on social media, or with a sympathy card. Aim to say the right thing from the start so that you can avoid unintentionally hurting your loved one at a time when they’re already in so much pain.

When you do it right, they may not remember what you said years later, but they’ll remember that you were open to supporting them during one of the toughest times of their lives.

Finally, words can accomplish so much, but so does listening and being present. Sometimes, just showing up and being present to the widowed is what is most needed.

——————–

Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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