On the periphery of loss


It’s actually been a difficult week. I’m on the periphery of two difficult recent losses, women gone too young, both taken by cancer; and wondering how, trying, hoping to support those friends for whom the loss is much much closer, terribly personal. I’m trying not to be paralyzed by the idea that a small gesture is too small, or to fear doing or saying the wrong thing; but I also want to acknowledge that it can be hard to know what to do or say in situations that fall outside of our normal every day interactions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wonder how many of us are paralyzed by the fear that we might do or say the wrong thing? Maybe that’s because it is easy to do or say the wrong thing. I think about what mattered when Kevin’s dad died seven and a half years ago, and remember that the questions and interest of people too many steps removed from the situation seemed callow and offensive, even when well-meant and kindly spoken. But the cards and casseroles were wonderful, no matter who they came from, and the presence of friends at the funeral really did help. So from this, I would observe that presence and a simple offering is far and away more valuable than trying to say the right thing. I remember another friend telling me (from personal experience) that the worst thing to say to someone who is grieving is “you must be feeling …” or “you must be so …” Just say, I’m sorry for your loss, he told me. Consider how common the “You must be …” sentence construction is and how often it gets applied to situations out of the norm. I wonder why. No matter the intention, it comes off sounding like the speaker is trying to dictate the ground rules for emotion. Thinking about everything I’ve written here, I’m coming around to concluding that to do is far more valuable than to say, in difficult times. After all, isn’t that our impulse when faced with someone else’s grief or loss: to do something. It’s just that we don’t always know what to do, what’s appropriate, what’s needed, what would help rather than add to the burden.

Perhaps some of you might be willing to share in a comment what words or (more likely) deeds helped you through a difficult time. And thanks for listening.

xo, Carrie

PS A link to an article in Slate magazine about a woman who designs empathy cards with messages she would have liked to have received during her cancer treatment.

Briefly, a few good things
Holiday Monday


  1. What I found most helpful last year when my mom died was just an quick word of condolence, followed by just letting life continue, and not dwelling on this terrible thing that had happened. I don’t know, maybe that’s the part of me that shuts out the bad, and maybe it was the timing of it (we had just gotten back to Canada), but what I wanted most was to just try to get back to some kind of regular life and DO STUFF, not be defined by my mom’s death. What I appreciate most in times of stress is actually not having people take over life’s routines for me – I do better, generally, when I’m busy, and having everything done for me while I’m expected to just grieve is really difficult, though I know everybody’s desire to help was out of love, so I appreciated it too, most of the time. I guess it was just nice to know that people were thinking of me. All that being said, I never know what to say or do either.

    • Interesting perspective, and thanks for adding your thoughts, Nath. Maybe the point being that there’s no one way to grieve, and therefore also no one way to respond to grief. Sometimes I think, too, that the stressed out or grieving person doesn’t need the burden of answering the question “what can I do to help?” even though the open-ended offer is kindly meant. … I always have difficulty coping with decision-making when I’m stressed out, so trying to make one more decision for someone else just seems overwhelming. Maybe if we don’t know what to say or do, or have a strong sense of what our friend wants or needs, a card is a good way to go.

  2. Whenever a heart speaks true ( and yours always would) the words are right — or whatever you feel “pulled” to do – cannot really be “wrong” –. I heard my mother say so many times how angry she got by people’s “foolish” statements — but I think people do not often know and in our unknowingness— often we are awkward. Anyone that says or does something in a way that expresses: “I am here for you. My heart holds yours. I cannot understand what it is like for you — but I can listen.” That acknowledgment, that space and listening? So very cherished by me. And sometimes long after everyone stops saying sorry for your loss and thinks one should have moved on –understanding I probably have not, nor will ever– for this loss, (as all losses do) has re-shaped me, is now part of who I am and affects how I see the world, live my life, and love the ones I still can. Well, is good to find one who understands that the journey is just that–

    ps I’ve missed you. Glad I caught this post.

    • I’ve missed you too, Sheree. Every time I read Mabel Murple to CJ, I say that this is by a friend of mine, and that makes it extra special.

      I fear this post is itself awkward, and feared as much when deciding to publish it … but maybe you are right and it is better to risk being awkward than to close ourselves off from responding at all, if we are feeling moved to speak or make a gesture of care. Thanks for your response here. I hope our paths will cross again someday, in person. xo

  3. I’m sorry for your losses, Carrie.

    I’ve been going through a lot of mourning lately myself, and I think the worst is when people say “let me know if there is anything I can do.” It feels so…dismissive and what ever the opposite of heartfelt is. Cards from people really meant a lot, which surprised me. That gesture, even if it was as simple as “I’m sorry for your loss.” meant more than any email.

    Things like offering to take the kids and bring by food was amazing. “I’d like to to take your kids/bring by a meal. Would X Y or Z day be better for you?”

    How one supports with a death is a lot like how one supports with a newborn, I think. Errands, groceries, child minding, food.

    • Thank you for these thoughts, Marita. Yes, a card means a lot. Perhaps it’s the handwriting, the time it’s taken to compose and put down on paper a thoughtful message, even if brief — it’s personal.

  4. Listening. Over and over, as the story gets retold, and as details emerge in their own time, randomly, unsequentially, repetitively.

    And as Sheree wrote so eloquently, making room for the ways your friend will change, in the short term, and for always.

    Well-planned meals, preferably organized by others, and reflective of the family’s particular food preferences and schedules (packed lunches as special extras).

    And lastly, be not afraid. Good intentions not delivered are just that. Undelivered goods. Take the risk and act. Knowing that part of grieving is learning to receive. The creative giving astounded us. Woolen blankets. Poetry. A clean house. Silent walks. Bath salts. Books. Music. Simple and nourishing meals. Quilted art. A boxing match in the backyard. And words…cards, emails, phone calls. Not all parsed at once. But forever reminders we were not alone.

    • Thank you for adding your voice here, Krista. I appreciate it very much. (And you’re someone I’ve missed too, to echo what I said to Sheree …)

  5. In my most recent loss, I just needed acknowledgement from people who were on the periphery, but where I found real and deep comfort was from people who also felt deeply the loss of the same person–there was incredible comfort in that. I think if you are peripheral, either simply acknowledging the loss and/or doing anything of practical use — mowing the lawn, bringing a meal, etc. One time, I housesat for the grieving family while they were at the funeral so that they didn’t have to worry about (the sadly real threat of) robbery during the funeral.

    • Thank you for adding your advice, Susan, and relating your own experiences. I appreciate what you’re saying very much, especially understanding that the deepest comfort comes from those who are also experiencing the same deeply felt loss.

    • I was looking for that link, Susan! Thank you sharing. I remember reading it awhile back, but couldn’t recall where I’d found it, or what it was called.

  6. Recently a friend’s husband ended his life. I was left feeling that “I’m sorry for your loss” would be highly inadequate. I didn’t know what else to say. I love words, usually, but in death they seem like a silly thing.

    • Yup, I agree. “I’m sorry for your loss” sounds incredibly inadequate in this situation. “I’m so sorry,” still has power, though, I think. Words can’t cover everything. Words do fail. But words gesture toward connection. I’m not sure what else we’ve got.


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