How (Not) to Console Someone

Originally posted on October 13, 2010 at 1:55 PM

I have some experience with grief. Besides the obvious, I find myself being consoled more often than people die—every time I get a rejection. Didn’t win a contest? Consolation by friends. Editor sent stock rejection? Consolation by family. Agent said no? Consolation by critique group. Part of this industry is rejection; part of loving someone is being supportive. For me, that adds up to a lot of consolation on a regular basis. Everyone is different. Each person in my life responds to my bad news in a different way—all equally well-intended, of course. It’s really got me thinking. What is the best way to console someone?

Let me preface this by saying: if you happen to be reading this and realize that you’ve consoled me in one of the ways I discuss, please don’t worry. I’m an adult and I know very well that intentions are what matter. As a loved one of someone who’s grieving, there’s definitely a feeling of helplessness. In an effort to overcome that, we tend to say things that help us more than the one grieving, and that’s generally where we go wrong. But still, I would much rather have someone say something “incorrect” in an attempt to be kind and supportive than to say nothing at all.

I understand the instinct (I’m sure I’ve succumbed before too), but I don’t like being fed platitudes. When someone dies, for example, the first question is often, “Was it sudden?” If you say no, they say, “Well, at least it wasn’t unexpected and you had time to prepare.” As if “preparing” really makes it better. If you say yes it was sudden, they say, “At least they didn’t suffer.” Does that make it better? No. They’re still gone. Neither of these empty ideas are any real solace. And it’s generally an awkward thing to ask in my opinion. In my dad’s case, I never knew what to answer. Yes, it was expected—he basically had a terminal illness—but also no: it was sudden, too, the way it ended. Where’s the consolation there?

It’s very, very tempting. And perhaps sometimes appropriate. But generally, “I understand,” doesn’t work for me. No, you don’t. No one can understand what someone else is going through, and in the midst of grief, it ends up sounding belittling to that person’s sorrow. Likewise, “It could be worse” isn’t good. Really, that’s what the above statements are trying to say in a more subtle way. The fact that it could be worse doesn’t make it easier to cope.

How about advice? As with all of these examples, I’m sure there are times when it would be genuinely appropriate and much appreciated. Personally, I can’t stand unsolicited advice. “Look on the bright side,” is trite and denies the very real emotions that a grieving person might be feeling. I think it’s really unhealthy to bury negative emotions with positive ones. It’s like telling a person whose wife/brother/child/etc. just died, “Don’t be sad.” Really?

Whether the person in grief has lost a loved one, missed a job opportunity, sustained damage to their home, been personally injured, or whatever, ultimately, I think the only thing we can do that’s universally acceptable is just to listen, say “I’m sorry,” and mean it. Don’t you?

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