In this post, my desire is to try to explain why that statement is typically far more hurtful than helpful and how it robs the bereaved of their unique grief.
Let’s start with the obvious – and that is that there is absolutely no way you can know exactly what anyone else is feeling at any precise moment in time, let alone when they are dealing with great loss and sorrow. It’s impossible. You may have had a similar experience, but grief is not so generic that anyone, you included, can conceive of exactly what someone else is thinking, fearing or feeling. My grief is unique to ME, just as your grief is (or will be) to you. We will all face the death of someone we love at some point in our life, but the circumstances that surround each death is diverse, and people’s response to the same loss can be vastly different as well.
Take two siblings who lose a parent. They can each respond in very distinct ways. They may process this death from different perspectives. Perhaps one had cared for the ailing parent and is relieved that their mom or dad is no longer suffering, and the other sibling feels guilty because they couldn’t ‘be there’ for their parent or help their sibling share the enormous load of being the caregiver. Same loss – yet very different reactions and emotions fill each person. This is such a universal reality that I could write a book about it. But suffice it to say that there are a myriad of reasons two people, suffering the same loss, can feel exactly the opposite of one another, and regardless of why, it occurs and an it occurs often. So, doesn’t it make sense that if two people who loved the same person and both had the same relational title can feel so differently in their grieving, that the rest of the world would fit into the same box?
And yet, “I know exactly how you feel” gets said so often it makes my head feel like it’s going to explode. I honestly believe people mean well, but when you are already ragged and hanging onto life by what feels like frayed dental floss, that statement has the ability to set one off like a rocket blasting into space. Unfortunately, most of the time the grieving individual feels forced to stand there, smile and nod politely at the person, instead of expressing the total rage that is brewing inside them. I believe what people are trying to say is that they understand certain aspects of the loss you are experiencing and are trying to reach out and make a connection with you. Perhaps they want you to know that you are not alone in feeling angry or scared, or maybe you aren’t feeling what you think you should, and they can relate to that as well, and don’t want you to feel like you are grieving poorly.
I realize that with shared experiences comes similar emotions – but when you are grieving – it’s just different. You understand that you may share something with this other person, and in time they can be a source of comfort and validation, but right now, what you are feeling is yours, it’s not anyone else’s.
I’ve been widowed twice, and still wouldn’t assume my emotions onto another widow or widower. Yet that is precisely what we do when tell someone we know exactly what they are feeling.
To be blunt and in my opinion, I think it’s an insulting thing to say to someone.
It’s ok to express that you too lost your ________ and that you felt __________________. You can even ask them if they are feeling similarly, but give them the chance to tell you if that is an emotion they are currently dealing with or not. It doesn’t mean they won’t feel that way at some point, but you just can’t assume that because you felt it, someone else will feel it too, and at the same time you did.
That’s why I feel it’s an insult. It’s as if you are telling someone that you can fully comprehend exactly how they loved their deceased person. But you can’t – and why? Because you didn’t know them the way the griever did.
The relationship that they shared is only theirs to know. No other person can or will ever understand it, in its entirety, except the two of them. And now that half of that exclusive pair is gone, they have literally lost a portion of themselves. There is an irreplaceable distinctiveness that existed solely within the context of that relationship, that now exists no more. And for you to say that you know exactly how they are feeling robs them of that intimacy. It’s as if you are stealing something sacred from them and now taking it as your own, and that is a pain and hurt I don’t really know how to fully convey.
Grief is so deeply personal because the one we are grieving is so exceptionally exclusive to us, and to project our feelings onto the one grieving, cheapens not only their sorrow, but the relationship they had when their loved one was alive.
Can you say you know how they smelled to the one with whom you are speaking too? Do you know how their touch felt to the one who is bearing this grief? Do you know the things they laughed about together, the private moments that they shared? Do you understand the brink that they may have fought back from to even have a relationship, now to have it lost forever? Do you understand the guilt they might be feeling for things said or other words that should have been spoken but never were? Did you grow up sharing Christmas Eve with them as you both waited in anticipation for Santa Claus to arrive? Can you know the things they laughed at while they were on family vacations together? Can you recall what they were doing in that picture that now hangs on a memorial board? Do you know what this person was thinking the last time they saw their loved one? The answer is no – because you are not either of those people. While you may have loved them deeply and miss them terribly, your grief is not their grief.
Therefore, don’t cheapen what anyone is feeling by stating that you know exactly how they are feeling, Instead of assuming and projecting our emotions onto others, here are some phrases that might be helpful.
“I can’t imagine what you are currently feeling”
“Even though I’ve lost a ___________, I still don’t know how you are feeling right now”
“I imagine you are aching inside”
“I imagine you hurt more deeply than you believe anyone else can understand”
“I know that your pain is your pain and I would never marginalize it by pretending to say that I know exactly what you are feeling”
“I do understand some of the overall hurt and heartache, but I am just so truly sorry you are going through this and must walk this path”
“If I had any way to take your pain and carry it myself, I would”
I still have no idea what to say to another widow. I don’t know if she is in shock, terrified, relived to be rid of a terrible marriage (it happens), numb or just getting by from minute to minute. I don’t know what she fears in the dead of night when she wakes up alone in her bed. I don’t know if she wants people around or to be left alone. What I do know is that I don’t know her pain – precisely. I do understand it. I can relate to certain aspects of her loss. But I am not her and she is not me – and we each deserve to experience our grief in the unique way with which it occurs.
There is a passage from Isaiah 55:8 that says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. While I in no way mean to appear blasphemous, I think we would do well to recite this passage before we open our mouths to those who are grieving. My thoughts are not their exact thoughts and their ways of coping will not be exactly the same as it was, or is, for me. I must be mature enough to ask questions instead of imply truths I am not certain of. I must seek to know their heart and their hurt, and not project my pain and my grief onto them. I must desire to truly be there for them and I must be willing to keep my mouth shut when I have no idea what to actually say that can be comforting.
I must be capable of understanding that at certain times, the only comfort a grieving person has, comes from a place deep within, and not from the words or deeds of another person. And finally, we need to understand that there are times where there is no comfort to be given that can adequately quench the unspeakable ache the grieving heart is bearing, and it is we, that must learn to be comfortable with the pain and utter despair that often accompanies grief, and allow ourselves to simply sit with this person and mourn quietly alongside them.
The following quote from Henri J.M. Nouwen best conveys this idea.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Let us go forth and be the friend who truly cares. The friend with no answer, the friend with no quippy prose, and the friend who can understand that they will never fully know the depth of sorrow and the ache that will forever be carried, due to the substantial loss that is being mourned. Let us be a balm to the heart of the wounded and may our words, when offered, be received in the manner that helps and not hurts.
And please – never, ever, ever say, “I know exactly how you feel”….