We’ve all been there…slightly frozen…discomfort setting in…perhaps some thoughts are spiraling…wishing we could take back what we just said. Raise your hand if you’ve ever said something dumb to someone grieving. If you are human, I’m sure your hand is raised right now.
As universal as death, dying, and grieving is, we live in a society that typically does not lend itself to talking openly about grief. Part of trying to “show up” unfortunately means occasionally saying the wrong things, even when we try our best not to. Many of us not only worry about saying the wrong things, but also how we’ll manage it when we do.
Just as we know that everyone’s grief experiences are different, there isn’t just one way to support our grieving friends or mend something insensitive we might have said. There are, however, some steps and points to consider when trying to repair the aftermath of saying something insensitive.
Steps to take after you’ve said something you regret
1. Name the mistake to the person. Acknowledge the comment you made that you wish you could take back. Be accountable for making the mistake; it validates for your friend what they might be experiencing as a recipient of the comment. Naming it also takes the burden off of the griever to have to try and bring it up themselves. You might say something like, “I am so sorry. I know I just said something dumb/insensitive…I’m feeling uncomfortable, so I imagine you might be feeling even more uncomfortable. The words I used did not communicate what I was trying to say, and I feel really bad about it.”
2. Forgive yourself for the messy language. Hey, this is usually how grief feels–messy. We are all bound to make mistakes. We may say things we desperately want to take back (like, “At least she didn’t suffer…” or “He’s in a better place now…” or “Was it an overdose?”); but if we continue to show up, we can repair those mistakes. Throughout this process, remember to do your best to show yourself grace. Recognize that most of us have had very few models for supporting those who are grieving and/or examples of how to truly show up.
3. Acknowledge you are committed to doing better. Tell your friend that you want to do the work to be more supportive, and you don’t expect him/her/them to teach you everything about how to support them. Perhaps you can read articles or books about grief, or watch a recommended video about it. Getting this information yourself will demonstrate that you want to learn to become more aware of how to support your friend(s) during these difficult times.
4. Accept that being uncomfortable during conversations is okay. When we avoid the obvious–the elephant in the room–it’s difficult to move forward. If we don’t talk about the mistake we made, that might make us afraid to keep engaging and showing up for our friends.
We hope that talking about grief, death, and dying will become more normalized for all of us. Until then, one thing is certain: the people grieving in our lives need to feel there is space for them to show up, with their grief, however it looks and feels that day. They need the opportunity to talk about their experience. So let’s all continue to work towards creating that space for grieving people.
Marissa Kusy-Leavitt is a licensed clinical social worker and the Clinical Director of the Michigan Girls’ Program at Experience Camps. Marissa has been working in the mental health field since 2014 and graduated from the Columbia School of Social Work. Currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, she works with children ages five to 14 and their families, in a partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient setting, specializing in mood and anxiety disorders. Marissa has been part of the Experience Camps community since 2018, what she calls “the best week of the year!”