I met a guy at a brewery recently. He was a friend of a friend of a friend from Detroit. He was a close talker - and not in the charming and intimate kind of way, but in the too-drunk-to-pay-attention-to-boundaries kind of way. After a couple minutes of small talk, with his warm alcohol breath in my ear, he slurred “I heard about your husband.” Apparently moving 200 miles north was not enough distance to separate this new life from my old one.
“Yeah. How did he die?”
I had zero interest in sharing the most affecting part of my life with this stranger, but I must admit, I did respect his complete drunken disregard for platitudes and his desire to jump straight to the juicy details.
“Cancer,” I replied, leaning away.
“Did he smoke?” he asked, leaning back in towards me.
The question hit me like a punch to the gut. That was my cue. I stood up and walked away.
“Where are you going?!" the drunk friend of a friend of a friend yelled before getting distracted by a nearby buddy with a fresh pitcher of beer.
If Brad smoked, did that mean - from this stranger’s perspective - his terminal diagnosis was justified? That somehow he deserved to die? If Brad smoked, did this tragedy somehow make sense?
The truth is, when we first met, Brad did smoke. I’d walk by his ground floor apartment on my way to class and see him sitting on his patio with his just-woke-up bedhead - a coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other, scribbling in his journal. Even though he had quit shortly after, and been a non-smoker for the majority of our decade plus relationship, when I think of Brad, that version still vividly pops up in my mind.
I get it. I get why this stranger wanted to know if he smoked. Healthy 35 year olds aren’t supposed to die without cause, right? One day he was fine, the next day he wasn’t. It’s not supposed to happen that way. So we create a “reason” so we can assure ourselves it could never happen to us. That drunk friend of a friend of a friend wasn’t actually asking how Brad died. He was asking why Brad died. So he could reassure himself that he wouldn’t - couldn’t - die the same way.
I don’t think that friend of a friend of a friend meant to be offensive. Whether he was aware or not, he was asking the question that would allow him to continue living in blissful ignorance. He was asking the question, so the other question - “could that be me?” - wouldn’t linger in his mind. He probably left that day and never thought about Brad again.
But his question stuck with me. And if I’m being truthful, I had my own period of time, wondering similar questions. Why did he die ? Was it a medication he was on? His alcohol consumption? Something in the water? A hidden toxin in our home? His diet? The way he carried his stress?
I was desperate for answers. I too, wanted to know why Brad died.
I understand where this friend of a friend of a friend was coming from. I do. But still, it made me feel like shit. It made me rage with anger. It made me want to stand up and scream at him, “does that make it ok?!”
Instead, I stood up and walked away.
People say a lot of unintentional shitty things, completely unaware of the effect it may have on the recipient. And I’m not necessarily mad at them for asking the insensitive question, no matter how valid/invalid it may be. I’m mad because it triggers my own anger and my own desperate desire for questions - questions I’ll never have answers to.
But even if the questions themselves aren’t “wrong,” for the sake of the grieving, I’d encourage you to really try to avoid being the person that triggers such rage in another.
So to help you out, from my experience, here are things you should probably avoid saying to someone who has recently lost a spouse (especially if you are a stranger. Or even a friend of a friend of a friend):
"Did he smoke/drink/do drugs/eat fast food/etc.?”
Even if he did and even if those lifestyle habits did lead to an illness, it’s not helpful. It provides zero comfort. As mentioned above, it triggers a Daenerys-Targaryen-just-lost-her-dragons level of rage. Even if I could connect the dots as to why Brad got a terminal illness - even with those answers - I’d still be just as sad/angry/shocked about his death. Ask it to yourself. Use that question to educate yourself on healthy lifestyle choices that can help you avoid future illness. But don’t ask me.
"At least it was quick.” “At least it was slow.” “At least you’re young and can meet someone else.” At least you had a lifetime together.” At least you didn’t have kids to take care of.” “At least you have kids to focus on.”
If your sentence starts with "at least…” just stop (unless it’s “at least I showed up with tacos and beer”). Saying “at least” is an attempt to put a positive spin on a negative situation. Let’s just all agree that losing your spouse is fucking negative.
“My grandfather/sixth cousin/pet parakeet also died from cancer, so I get it.”
Sharing grief stories is great - it’s healing, it allows you to feel less alone, and relate over a shared loss. We use our own experiences with loss to try and connect. But don’t let those be the first words out of your mouth when you are trying to support someone who just lost their partner. Comparing grief isn’t productive. We are different people who lost different people and who process loss differently. None of us get what someone else is going through. And bringing up your loss, shifts the focus to your own loss, instead of the person needing immediate support. There will be time for that later (if you're an actual friend and not just a friend of a friend of a friend).
“He’s in a better place.”
Sure. Maybe there is a heaven with all you can drink margaritas where you spend your days flying through the sky and your nights sleeping on a pillow of clouds (Maybe I’m confusing heaven with Care-a-Lot). But in the midst of my grieving, I don’t care. I'm selfish and think there is no better place (not even heaven - or Care-a-Lot) than here with me (and I believe Brad would agree. Because I'm fucking awesome.). Plus this brings up an assumption on an entire set of beliefs that you don’t know we share.
“I can’t imagine…”
Yes you can. You absolutely can imagine. It’s actually really easy. You can do it right now. You just imagine the person you love most in the world walking out the door today and not coming back tonight. You just imagine going to sleep in your shared bed alone and then waking up alone over and over again. You just imagine opening up your closet and realizing he will never wear those shoes again. You just imagine spending hours sifting through old videos just to hear his laugh one more time. It’s not that you can’t imagine. It’s that you don’t want to imagine. It’s that it’s too hard to imagine. It's that you are uncomfortable imagining.
So what can you say if you just met someone whose spouse has died?
"I’m so sorry.”
Look them in the eyes, don’t squirm in discomfort, actually imagine what they must be feeling, and say, “I’m sorry.” It’s direct. It’s simple. It’s thoughtful.