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Bolutife Sanwo: “I Know How You Feel”… Things Not To Say to Someone Who is Grieving

People who have experienced loss will tell you that it was the worst experience of their lives.

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Even if you can’t put yourself in their shoes (for some, experience really is the only teacher), don’t try to make their lives worse. Silence remains golden. All day, any day.

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I recently saw a movie about a couple who had lost their 18-year old daughter to a rare genetic disorder – one that had also cost them their first daughter at infancy. There was a scene where they had dinner with a few friends; the father had gotten a transfer at work and they were talking about that and how it would be good to have a change in environment. As the conversation progressed, one of their friends said she knew exactly (yes, she used that word) how they felt as she herself had been so distraught when she lost her mother-in-law who had been seventy-three at the time. 73! I was sure (and still am) that I had never heard anything more insensitive.

Loss is a deeply harrowing event. People who have experienced loss will tell you that it was the worst experience of their lives. This hasn’t changed. All over the world, loss changes people and without a strong support system, some never recover from it. It is definitely not the time for anyone to try to be smug, or prove an unnecessary point. You’d think everyone knew that, but then they open their mouths and boom…the opposite falls out.

If you know people who are grieving, never say these words to them:

I know how you feel / I know what you’re going through

No, you do not. Now, a wonderful thing to note about people who say this is that a good percentage of them have never had to deal with an ‘actual’ loss; the closest they’ve come is perhaps the loss of a favorite hairpin or an ATM card. Their entire experience with loss is what they’ve read in books or seen on TV. Some people have actually lost a loved one before but it’s still not an excuse. Relationship dynamics are different and people mean different things to different people; a mother might mean more to one than a daughter. So the fact that you lost your daughter does not put you in a position to say that you know how they feel, because after all (according to you), what’s a mother compared to a daughter?

God loves them more

When we lost our mother, almost everyone said this to my siblings and I. It made me wonder: “If God loved her so much, why didn’t He just keep her? Why did He let us have her in the first place only to take her when He pleased? Didn’t our love for her matter too?”

Was I a Christian then? Yes, I was. Did I love God? Without a doubt. Were my feelings valid? Absolutely, they were. No matter how true it is that God’s love surpasses what we feel for one another, unless you have the (right) answer to these questions, be more careful who you say them to. In the process of trying to make someone heal, you do not want to cause more damage.

You should have gotten over it by now

Now, this is straight-up annoying and that’s even putting it nicely. People (e.g Nigerians) are not exactly good at minding their own business. But, it’s unfortunate when they let that translate to matters as delicate as a loss. So, I’ll just put it out there:

It. Is. Not. Your. Business.

Really. Face your front. True, it could be out of concern; you may be worried for them, their health and all. However, there are better ways to communicate certain things to grieving people or express concern, other than condescendingly trying to dictate how long they get to grieve for. I read a piece sometime about a woman who lost her unborn child at six-and-a-half months. Naturally, she was devastated and she continued to mourn the child for a year. Of course, it was not outright Nollywood-style wailing but she constantly thought of her baby – of what could have been, and even though she tried to look like everything was fine, people could tell that she wasn’t okay. They tried to talk her out of it. One even said to her, “It was only a miscarriage”. She also heard so many other hurtful words spoken out of concern, but also mostly ignorance.

Instead of reducing her pain, they only made it worse and added guilt to the mix. I can’t emphasize how wrong this is. The last thing a person needs in that state is someone trivializing their loss and making it seem like it isn’t such a big deal. It is, to them. Respect that.

This is all your fault

Well, at least they’ll (hopefully) say this indirectly. I remember a certain Nigerian artiste losing his son in a swimming pool accident. It was such a dark time, you could almost cut through the darkness with a butter knife. Yet, some chose that time to be insensitive, saying that they should have been more careful with a child around a pool, they should have gated the pool once the child was born, yada yada. Excuse you, Sherlock! You think they don’t know?

That was perhaps the only thought running through their mind; of how they could have saved their child perhaps by not even having a pool in the first place, how they were the cause of his death, directly or indirectly. The last thing they needed was an ‘accuser’ twisting the knife in deeper. So, uncle, aunty, close your mouth, no one asked for your input. Fem Fem Fem. Feeem.

Seriously though, we need to do better as humans. Even if you can’t put yourself in their shoes (for some, experience really is the only teacher), don’t try to make their lives worse. Silence remains golden. All day, any day.

Boluwatife Sanwo loves to write; she's either fingers deep in prose (articles, short stories, essays), or drawing up long lists of names for a brand-naming platform. Although a chemist by profession, she also has her eyes on investment finance. These apart, you can always find her beside a plate of food.

37 Comments

  1. Amotulahi Dada

    March 5, 2020 at 10:49 am

    This is a really insightful piece. It’s okay to not know what to say to a grieving person immediately(its sometimes the shock) and many people just say things wanting to try to relate to that experience at that moment which comes off as being insensitive. One thing is, you can be compassionate and show your support to a grieving person without relating or comparing what they’re going through to what you’ve been through in the past. Like you said in the post, “sometimes silence is golden”. Thank you for sharing this.

    1
    • Oorebambam

      March 5, 2020 at 11:12 am

      Amazing content! She has always had this writing thing in her…Thank you for dropping some tips for us..We look forward to more❤❤❤

      1
    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:27 pm

      You’re very right. Sometimes, we often (unnecessarily) want to relate to the grief of others, when what they really need is our presence. As expected, it does more harm than good.

      1
    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:55 pm

      I agree that shock makes some people say insensitive things; I’ve had a few instances myself, which is why wiser words than ‘shut up’ have perhaps not been said. Thank you so much for giving me my first comment, Amotulahi.

  2. Ajomole Fisayo Abimbola

    March 5, 2020 at 11:01 am

    This is one article everyone needs to read including myself. Thank you so much for sharing this

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:36 pm

      Thank you too for reading it, Fisayo.

  3. Fuhad

    March 5, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Wow this is good

    1
    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks, Fuhad!

  4. Mercy Wojuola

    March 5, 2020 at 11:10 am

    Thanks for this piece,so thoughtful.

  5. Ndidiamaka

    March 5, 2020 at 11:15 am

    This is talking about me kind of. I just lost my maternal great grandmother and everyone seems to be like “oh, she’s old, you shouldn’t feel so bad.” Yes, she was 85 but we had a close relationship. We didn’t see her as being old because she was sarcastic, interesting and her sense of humor is not from here. I’m grieving like I lost a little child and of my course, my feelings are valid.

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:41 pm

      Your feelings are very valid, Ndidi, and I’m so sorry you lost your obviously wonderful great grandmother.

  6. Iyanu John

    March 5, 2020 at 11:21 am

    This is very true…you really nailed it!
    It’s better to be silent than say hurtful words.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    1
    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:39 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Ìyanu. It really is better to be silent.

  7. David Eno James

    March 5, 2020 at 11:23 am

    Nicely composed. Thanks for sharing

    1
    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:41 pm

      Thank for reading, too.

  8. Ajiboro Temitayo

    March 5, 2020 at 11:24 am

    Many at times we don’t even know we are doing more damage than good when we are consoling people for their loss. Some people feel because they are numb to losing loved probably through experience which they never really had so everyone should just be like them and behave like nothing happened excuse you it does work for other people like that and other people cannot be you respect that. Bolu dear thank you for this piece

    1
    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:44 pm

      “Experience which they never really had”. This says it all. Thank you so much, Temitayo.

  9. Damilare

    March 5, 2020 at 11:36 am

    This is amazing

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:47 pm

      Thank you very much, Damilare.

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:48 pm

      Aw, thank you very much, Damilare.

  10. Absurd

    March 5, 2020 at 11:43 am

    Amazing, brought a new perspective to my psyche.
    Thank you.

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:51 pm

      I am definitely screen-grabbing this comment. Thank you, Absurd.

  11. Fatima Yusuf

    March 5, 2020 at 12:16 pm

    This is so apt. Someone once told me to stop crying, after all the deceased is just a family friend (this is someone that was like a father to me)

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:58 pm

      People really need to mind their business. The word ‘just’ does not exist in the dictionary of pain. Thank you so much, Fatima.

  12. Muyiwa

    March 5, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    Terrific piece

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:49 pm

      I’ve always liked the word ‘terrific’. Thank you, Muyiwa.

  13. Deborah Adesola

    March 5, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    Wow,This is so helpful. Thank you

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:33 pm

      I’m glad it helped, Deborah.

  14. Favour

    March 5, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    This is a really thoughtful piece indeed. Silence is golden sometimes!

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:43 pm

      It is, really. Thank you, Favour.

  15. Laksyde

    March 5, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    You nailed it dear! Succinct & thoughtful.
    Perhaps, from your bio, this got me smiling, ……you can always find her beside a plate of food.

    • Boluwatife Sanwo

      March 5, 2020 at 1:46 pm

      Haha, thank you so much Laksyde. I’m happy you liked so much.

  16. Boluwatife Sanwo

    March 5, 2020 at 2:00 pm

    Oorebambam, you’re too kind, plis dear. Hehe, but thank you, darling.

  17. Princess Oluwakemi

    March 5, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    True talk. We usually end up saying the wrong things to those grieving, all in the bid of trying to comfort them. I think it’s best to comfort them with our presence and silence?

  18. Amarachi Sylvanus

    March 5, 2020 at 5:33 pm

    I find this piece really concise. Silence,really is golden.

  19. Oreoluwa

    March 5, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    Wow, Bolu this is a really nice one. Everyone should read this…

  20. Lasisi Abdulmalik

    March 5, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    To play the devil’s advocate here, I would like to paint out a scenario. Let’s assume I visit a friend whose lost someone really dear to him/her, in that case you cannot actually expect me to stay silent throughout. For someone that loses his/her child due to their negligence, you cannot actually expect us to continue petting them or really consoling them without letting them know what they did wrong and how they can avoid such mistakes in the future. Also, if we all face our business and someone can’t get past their lost one, IF ANYTHING BAD HAPPENS TO THAT PERSON IT WOULD STILL BE OUR FAULT BECAUSE WE SHOULD ALWAYS BE OUR BROTHER’s KEEPERS

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