Kris Carr is a multiple New York Times best-selling author, wellness activist and cancer thriver. She’s been called a “force of nature” by O Magazine and was named a “new role model” by the New York Times. Kris is also a member of Oprah’s SuperSoul 100, recognizing the most influential thought-leaders today. Her new memoir, I’m Not a Mourning Person: Braving Loss, Grief, and the Big Messy Emotions That Happen When Life Falls Apart is her most poignant exploration of the human condition yet. In it, Kris tackles the universal experience of loss with her signature combo of searing vulnerability and irreverent humor.
In this excerpt, she addresses the conversations had with loved ones or friends after they’ve suffered a loss, offers perspective on how to approach them, and provides tips on what to say—and what not to say.
I Know You Mean Well, But…
Don’t be surprised if people do or say weird, totally confounding things when your world falls apart. These well-meaning folks are often referred to as “grief illiterate.” This doesn’t mean they’re jerks; it just means that they’re inexperienced in handling the big emotions that accompany life’s scary moments. None of us were taught how to survive storms of this magnitude. You likely didn’t know how to, either, before this sad, bad, mad, exhausting thing happened, and then it was trial by cancer, divorce, death, or some other flavor of crisis. We’re all doing the best we can, forgive yourself (and others) for past missteps. Here are a few ways to feel a little more prepared, a little less awkward, and a lot more compassionate along the way.
What NOT to say when someone is grieving…
“You’re young; you’ll have another baby…” (I want this baby!)
“He’s in a better place now…” (A better place is with me!)
“There are other fish in the sea…” (I don’t want fish. I want my person.)
“It was only a dog; why are you so sad?” (Because my dog is my child to me.)
“Aren’t you over it yet? It’s been months, years, decades…” (I’m sorry I’m not as bounce back–y as you. There’s no over; there’s only through.)
“At least she lived a long life…” (There is no such thing as “at least” in grief.)
“There’s a reason for everything…” (Excuse me while I vomit in my mouth.)
Scanning this list, you can see how attempts to connect with someone in their grief can unintentionally create more distance between you. Instead, I’ve found courageous acknowledgment from the people around me, meaning addressing the elephant in the room, to be most helpful. Be willing to talk about what happened. Can this be uncomfortable? Heck yes! Do it anyway. What you say—or don’t say—carries a lot of weight. How you show up for those you love in times of need can strengthen your relationship or damage it.
What TO say when someone is grieving…
“I am so sorry you’re going through this.”
“I’m not sure what to say, but I’m here to listen.”
“I don’t know how you feel, but I’m here to help in any way I can.”
“I’m with you, and I love you.”
“I’ll bet you could use some help right now. How about I [fill in the blank—run errands, get you groceries, walk the dog]?”
Here are a few helpful ways to show up for someone who’s grieving:
+ Validate their feelings: Don’t change the subject because you’re sweating. Stay in the muck. Share good memories, especially ones they may not even know about. If you didn’t know the person (or pet), you can say something like, “Though I didn’t know him, I can only imagine how wonderful he was because you are so wonderful.”
+ Check in: Send a text or leave a message letting them know you’re thinking of them but that they don’t need to respond. And don’t take it personally if they don’t. Take cues from them. If they don’t want to talk, don’t push. If they drop off the map, go find them. I have a tendency to isolate myself like a sick animal when my pain hits a tipping point (thanks, trauma). My closest true-blue Marie always catches the scent when I’m up to shenanigans like this. “Hey, just send me a smoke signal and let me know you’re okay.”
+ Proactively offer specific support: Bring the lasagna, watch the kids, run errands, help with funeral arrangements—OMG, please help with those… that stuff is so hard). And don’t just offer to help the week the loss happens. If you can, keep going, or at least keep checking in. Once the funerals, and celebrations of life are over, everyone else goes back to normal. But there is no normal for those left behind. Continuing to acknowledge the milestone dates (death anniversaries, birthdays, graduations) is the very definition of kindness.
+ Share and research resources: Include the specific phone numbers and contact information (therapists, counselors, bodyworkers, or if you’re my crew, psychic mediums on speed dial).
+ Give advice when appropriate and invited, but don’t meddle or judge: Huh? But how am I supposed to know the difference? I get it. I’m a fountain of feedback, so this tip is really just for me (wink, wink). Butting in on other people’s business, when your participation isn’t wanted, rarely feels good to them. Sometimes it can come off as shaming, corrective, or even patronizing. Other times it might feel like you can’t slow down enough to tune in to the person you’re trying to help. Instead, you might say something like, “Do you want advice right now, or do you want to brainstorm, or do you just want to get it off your chest?” Asking permission never hurts. Remember, pain needs to be witnessed, not polished.
In the end, there are no magic words that can take the pain away from those who are grieving or flailing in crisis. And it’s not our job to do so—I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s not your job to make it better. It’s your job to listen, to hug them and hold space for whatever feelings need to be expressed. When in doubt, let love lead the way. Love always knows what to do.
This excerpt from I’m Not A Mourning Person is copyrighted © 2023 by Kris Carr. Published by Hay House Inc.