Something big and unexpected happened on Tuesday, and as a result, millions of people in this country are processing their feelings of grief, shock, anger, and despair. Many of them are sharing these feelings on social media, and as a former therapist and a human being, I’ve been surprised by how unhelpful some of the responses have been. So here’s a quick primer on how to talk to someone who’s grieving.
What Not to Say
– “Everything will be okay” or “Don’t worry.” You do not know the future; you cannot promise that everything will be okay. This is especially true when it comes to a president-elect who has a habit of contradicting himself and has shared virtually no policy details. Of the few he has mentioned, several are unconstitutional, but we’re not sure if he’ll face opposition in the Republican-held Congress or how the Supreme Court, which will lean to the right once he fills the vacant seat, would rule in the case of a challenge. So given his lack of policy plans, his temperament, and his lack of previous governing experience, no one can be sure how he’ll govern, which is one of the reasons why people feel so scared. Social science research does offer one clue: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. And his history, from housing discrimination against black applicants in the ’70s through the invective against women, African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, and the disabled — among others — during this campaign does not paint a particularly hopeful future for any marginalized group in this country. People have good reasons to be scared. Please do not invalidate these feelings with empty promises.
– “God is in control” or “Jesus is on the throne.” I can appreciate you wanting to share that sentiment with someone who shares that belief. However, if this is your theology, then Jesus has been on the throne during some serious atrocities: The Holocaust. Slavery. The Armenian Genocide. The Trail of Tears. And on and on and on. God being in control doesn’t mean that terrible things don’t happen.
– “Give him a chance.” It’s a little absurd that we have a president-elect who has overtly insulted all of the groups mentioned above, yet members of these groups are the ones being asked to open their hearts and minds to him and not the other way around. This request deprives these people not only of their right to feel hurt and scared but also their right to justice, or at least an apology. (Not to mention that they have no choice but to give him a chance because he’s going to be president for 4 years, regardless of how anyone feels.)
– “It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House.” The morning after the election, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said, “What happens in the White House does not affect who you are, who your children are, what’s most important to you in your life.” Sure, the president may not change your identity or your values, and for many people — like Kelly, who is white, straight, and wealthy — life won’t be terribly different under the next one. However, if you’re black and this president and his proposed Attorney General both endorse stop-and-frisk; if you’re undocumented or the child of undocumented people and this president has vowed to start deportations immediately; if you’re a woman and this president has boasted about sexual assault; if you get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and this president has vowed to repeal it — something he’ll be able to do quickly with a Republican-led Congress; if you’re gay and this president has indicated that much of his domestic policy will be shaped by his VP, who is one of the most anti-gay governors in the country; then who is in the White House matters very much. The president-elect has real implications for your safety, your future plans, how you raise your children. To say it doesn’t matter is naive. For millions of Americans, it matters a great deal.
– “It’ll still be worse in other countries.” Yes, things will probably be worse in other parts of the world. But things are likely to get worse here — and indeed, they already are, less than 48 hours after the election was decided — which is still a loss, and this pain is valid. If you had a friend whose grandmother died, you wouldn’t show up at the funeral and tell them to cheer up because your other friend lost their entire family in a car accident. Pain is still pain, even when it’s not the worst pain possible.
– “Here’s what I think.” If someone just lost their grandmother, you would not ask them how they’re doing and then share memories of your grandmother. If someone you care about is grieving, your job is to listen. It is not to tell them why they’re seeing things the wrong way or to look on the bright side. Your job is to listen, empathize, support. This is about your friend, not you.
If you cannot keep yourself from saying any of these things, you’re better off not saying anything at all. A simple “thinking of you” or even a heart emoji would be infinitely preferable.
What To Say
– “How are you doing?” If someone doesn’t seem like they’re doing well, it’s okay to ask them if they’re okay. You thus communicate that you care, and they can share as much or as little as they want to. You don’t need to avoid the question because you fear things will get awkward.
– “I’m sorry. That sucks.” If you’re not sure what to say, genuine expressions of empathy are the best place to start. You don’t need to fill the time. You can ask thoughtful questions if you’re interested and they’re open to talking, but above all, give your friend the space to talk as much or as little as they want.
– “Me too” or “I can see why you would feel that way.” It’s validating to hear that you’re not alone in your grief. If you don’t share your friend’s feelings, try to put yourself in their shoes and see why they might be upset. Even if you have a very different experience, there’s usually some point of entry where you can connect with theirs. For example, if you’re a parent, perhaps you can relate to how a parent of color might feel if they worried about their kid being bullied at school. Very rarely will you encounter a story that you can’t connect with in some way.
– “I don’t know what to say, but I support you/I’m here for you/I’m thinking of you.” It’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t know what to say; what is there to say in a situation that feels hopeless? The most important thing to communicate is that you care.
We have a lot to process in the next few weeks, months, and years, so I hope that we care for each other as well as we can. For those who are mourning now, I wish for you all the space, resources, and support you need.
Photo credit: Seyed Mostafa Zamani @ Flickr