Every year for my birthday, I send love letters to strangers. I send one letter a day for as many years as I’ve been alive. Some of the hardest letters I send are the ones to people who are grieving. Sometimes it is the death of a parent. Sometimes it is a spouse or best friend. The very hardest ones are when a child has died.
But honestly, all of the letters are so difficult when I am offering love to someone who is in such deep pain and loss.
And yet, as difficult as they are, I feel compelled to focus my letter writing project on people who are grieving.
I will tell you why. It is because this is often such a difficult place for most of us.
We want to reach out when someone we love is going through a hard time. But what to say? And what if we say the wrong thing? What if we make it worse?
Truly, what I believe is that people who are grieving simply want and need to know we are there, that we care. It doesn’t matter what we say – just that we reach out, that we show up.
I feel so strongly about this that I included it as one of my gift ideas in my book, “Say it Now: 33 Creative Ways to Say I LOVE YOU to the Most Important People in Your Life.”
I want to give you an excerpt from the book – one that I hope will help you feel more comfortable in showing up for people in your life who may be grieving. Instead of holding back for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, I want to encourage you to step up and to show up – with all the love you’ve got.
Please remember that the best gift we can give someone is the gift of our presence and attention. This is especially true when someone is going through a dark time. You don’t have to be perfect; you just need to be there.
Celebrating in the Dark (book excerpt)
There’s a phrase I often use: “celebrating in the dark.” To me, what this means is being able to bring a little love, comfort, and light into a situation that’s difficult, depressing, or heavy.
This gift I’m about to describe falls into that “celebrating in the dark” category.
To create this kind of gift, what you’ll do is mark down the date when someone’s beloved family member or friend dies. Put a reminder on your calendar for one year later. Then, on the first anniversary of that death, send a letter filled with loving memories of the deceased – along with a beautiful card letting your friend know that you’re thinking of them and you recognize their loss. Let them know you haven’t forgotten.
Your letter might sound something like this:
“I want to acknowledge that it has been a year since your Dad passed away. Suzy, I know how much you loved him and how you were his shining star. Please know that he will never be forgotten, even by people like me, who only knew him through you. The stories I remember you telling me about him are so striking in that they reveal how much he loved you. For instance, I remember you telling me about the time your car broke down in Baltimore and he drove two hours in the snowstorm to come get you. I remember that you two stopped at a diner on the way back and he bought you hot chocolate and shared his own stories of car mishaps. I love thinking of that moment of connection and father-daughter love.”
You might be thinking, “But is it really okay to send a letter like this? Maybe Suzy would rather forget about this sad event. Maybe it’s not appropriate to dredge it up and remind her all over again…”
In my experience, I’ve found that when someone precious has died, their loves ones don’t want to forget. They want to remember. They want to honor that person and keep their memory alive. So, if you write a letter (or record an audio message) to acknowledge the anniversary of someone’s passing, 99 percent of the time, your recipient will be so appreciative that you remembered.
If you don’t have a specific memory that you recall hearing, or if you never met the deceased, that’s okay. Just write a couple simple lines that let your loved one know you are thinking of them one year later and you’re sending your love. It can be that simple.
You can reach out on the first anniversary of the loss, the second, third, fourth, every single year if you want. This is such a powerful way to express your love and let someone know, “You are in my thoughts.”
Also, you don’t necessarily have to wait an entire year before you reach out. Perhaps you know someone who recently lost a parent, spouse, child, friend, or even a beloved pet. There’s usually a big flurry of love right when the tragic event happens: flowers, food, cards, and hugs. But what about five or six months later? Often, once the funeral service is over, most people get busy with their own lives and get distracted and forget to keep checking in – and then your friend might feel very alone in her grief. You could put a series of reminder notes on your calendar to keep checking in with your friend once a month, just to say, “I’m thinking about you” and “I’m here.” Your friend will feel so cared for, seen, and understood.
Here are a Few More Thoughts on “What to Say”
Many people feel tongue-tied in the wake of a tragedy. Often, we’re not sure what’s the “right” thing to say or do and we worry about saying the “wrong” thing and making everything worse – so we hold back and wind up doing nothing at all. I urge you not to do this. Even if you’re not sure exactly what to say, just reach out and connect.
If you need a little guidance on what to say, here is a general, all-purpose message that works in pretty much any grieving scenario. You can say to your loved one: “I can’t even imagine the type of grief you must be feeling right now. What has happened is just awful and I wish I could take all of your pain away. I can’t do that, but what I can do is be here for you. Whatever you need, just text me, email me, call me. If you want someone to just listen while you scream or cry, if you need a hug, if you want me to distract you for a little bit with a silly joke, or just sit with you in silence, I am here for you. You are loved and you have a community to support you, including me. We are going to help you get through this. You’re not alone.”
Please feel free to copy-and-paste that exact message, word for word, and send it to someone you love who’s going through a hard time. Or copy it but then add your own personal spin. Or record yourself saying those words and then email the recording to your loved one. Choose any format you want; the key is just…reach out.
One more way I can help
I invite you to join me at a free virtual workshop on October 27th at 10:30am PT. This workshop, “Love Never Dies,” is part of a collaboration with the Reimagine Festival in San Francisco. Reimagine envisions a world in which we are all able to reflect on why we’re here, prepare for a time when we won’t be and live fully right up until the end.
As part of the Reimagine Festival, I am inviting people to celebrate the unique spirit of someone you love who has passed away. Or, you can gift someone else by celebrating someone they love who has died.
In this 90-minute workshop, I will lead you through a joyful and connecting process of making a one-of-a-kind tribute keepsake. You can read more & sign up here.
We can all learn to push past the discomfort of not knowing how to be or what to say by simply reaching out and showing up. That is what is most needed. That is what will be most appreciated. Thank you for being that kind of person.