*Published in Elephant Journal November 2021
I unexpectedly lost my life partner 15 days ago.
His name was Jeff Begreen and he was only 35 years old, and my god, was he my world. He had recently taken a job driving a dump truck so we could buy a homestead in the Southwest. On that Thursday morning, Jeff had just picked up a 20-ton load of stone and was on his way back to the worksite. Something he did 8–10 times a day, every day for the last month.
While he was driving, a green car pulled into the intersection and stopped in his lane of traffic. Jeff swerved to avoid hitting the car, which then put him head-on with a school bus, which he also swerved to avoid. With the weight of stone in the back, his truck toppled onto its driver side, slid down the road, and the bus hit him, killing him instantly.
In a matter of a few seconds, a life that was so full of dreams, possibilities, and promise was extinguished.
Cognitively, I know that Jeff will always be considered a hero, because rather than careening into that green car, he sacrificed himself. Do I wish this played out differently? Of course. But this was a split-second, selfless decision that he made, and one that I have to accept for the rest of my life. Since I learned of his passing that afternoon, I have been in a daze of emotions and grief. Trying to get ahead of notifying family, friends, and anyone else who knew him — who knew “us” — before they read it in the news.
In the midst of the bloodcurdling pain and grief, one thing that has been smacking me in the face during this experience is how incredibly unhelpful most people are when you are grieving. So, I decided to compile a list of the people you will meet on your grieving journey and some simple etiquette rules that everyone should know and follow.
Because everyone will die, the least you can do is not be a dick to those who are grieving.
The Unhelpful People You May Encounter
The Grief Comparers These people are usually the loudest in the room and no one quite “hurts” like they do. They say things like “you really can’t be as sad as me; I knew him longer.” What the actual fuck are you thinking when you say that to someone? This is someone I shared a life with, shared my body with, who knew my darkest secrets, dreams, and shared a vision of the future.
Usually these people are overrun with their own guilt that they weren’t closer to the person who died and so their only way to cope is to drink/drug themselves and say stupid shit. Another example is bringing up their own loss, which usually feels incredibly trivial. For example, someone told me they understood how I felt because someone who had a crush on them died years ago. Not remotely the same thing, please and thank you.
If you find yourself starting to compare grief, just don’t. You are into yourself. Not a help. Please remove yourself from the situation and reevaluate the words that are coming out of your mouth.
Grief Lookie-Loos These are people who send random social media messages and/or friend requests to the family of the deceased. In my experience, we have zero friends in common, nor has this person ever come up in conversation; yet, they feel the need to spam you with their grief. Grief Lookie-Loos seem to get off on holding onto that one conversation they had with the deceased 20 years ago and for some strange reason now have a fascination with your present life.
Why? Are you lying in wait to see me crumble or post about my impending mental breakdown on social media? My life has just imploded, and it is very much a minute-by-minute process. It’s not some reality show that you feel some strange connection to. To the grief lookie-loos, you are sincerely the lowest of the low. Fuck you. Find something constructive to do with your time and energy.
The Exes Now, these are a different category of lookie-loos. These are trolls that have seemingly reanimated themselves from the depths of social media to either make a snide comment or profess their semi-dramatic grief. While maybe it sounds like I’m being heartless, hear me out; these are a group of people who were left in the dust eons ago.
I’m not saying they won’t have feelings, but come on, don’t act like you were the one widowed. It’s not about you cowgirl. It’s attention-seeking behavior when you put it out on social media. If you truly are upset, consult your inner circle, get a therapist, but don’t go public with it. Not cool.
The “How are you doing?” People Now, these people I truly think are beyond unconscious and most likely the most uncomfortable by the expression of their feelings. I truly cannot understand what they expect the answer to be when they send that text or make that phone call. How the fuck do you think I am doing? Do you think a magic wand appeared and suddenly life is rainbows and butterflies? That somehow the past two weeks have been erased from memory and we are ready to carry on with a semblance of normalcy? A few words of advice: think before you make that outreach. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”Really check in to see if you are truly ready to be a help or just a pain in the ass.
The Tissue Givers If you hand a tissue to someone, you are subconsciously telling them to shut the fuck up. Really. Go back and read that again if that just rocked your world. Giving a tissue to someone isn’t a help. It’s a hindrance. You are making it known to the person crying that their emotions are making you uncomfortable and you want them to stop. Do not pass the tissue. Let them cry; let the boogers come. When they are ready, they’ll get their own damn tissue.
The Partiers In our culture, it’s second nature to not feel and numb the feelings that make us uncomfortable. However, if you are coming over to “support” the grieving and that “support” is really just you getting drunk or high in an attempt to dull your own emotions then you sir/madam are not a help. Please be gone. No one who is grieving needs frat house behavior.
These people usually are the ones trying to get you fucked up too because no one wants to be around a sad, sober person when the rest of the crowd is in party mode. Blow me. Piggybacking off of that, if you feel compelled to show up to someone’s services under the influence of anything, then please stay the fuck home. We would rather you not come at all than come fucked up. Especially if the person who died had almost a decade of sobriety under their belt. I can’t think of a more disrespectful slap in the face than to be fucked up at someone’s service.
The Empty-worded Sympathizers I can’t fully hate on these people, mainly because our society has really neglected to fully deal with grief and death head-on. I think most people are guilty of being an empty-worded sympathizer at one point in their life because dealing with someone who is grieving can be uncomfortable as fuck. “I’m so sorry for your loss” is a prime example of empty words. Sure, some people are sorry, but, to be honest, hearing that is useless to me. It brings zero comfort, and in fact, when I hear that, I want you out of my line of sight asap.
Other examples of empty phrases include “they’re in a better place,” “may they rest in peace,” and all the other overused death clichés that line Facebook walls. If you aren’t sure of what to say, zip your lips and say nothing. Really. It’s so much more helpful.
The Flower Givers Please, please, please save your money and refrain from buying gaudy funeral flowers for the family. They do not spark joy. The 100-plus dollars you are spending on those flowers just line the pockets of the funeral industry and offer zero comfort to the family. If you would like to do something nice, make a donation, volunteer at a charity, send food, or do something that is actually constructive. Skip the flowers. Seriously.
The “If there is anything I can do” People Now, don’t get it twisted, some people who say this truly mean it. They’re the ones you know you can call at 4 a.m. and will come over to hold space for you. However, most people don’t actually mean it. It’s another form of empty words. Don’t put this out there to people unless you truly mean that I can count on you should I need anything. Which includes that 4 a.m. phone call, cash if I’m running low, groceries, or just a person who holds space for me while I scream at the sky. If you can’t be that for me, don’t offer it. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
The Oblivious These are people who truly have no idea what the fuck they are saying and suffer from extreme diarrhea of the mouth. This can look like side conversations about dinner, their upcoming vacation, exciting things in their relationship, or whatever it may be all within earshot of the grieving. If you are showing up to a service or to be a pillar of support, be conscious of your audience. We may be crying, but we can still hear you!
The “It Gets Better/You’ll Move on” People First of all, who the fuck are you to be offering such outlandish statements? I don’t know how I’m going to feel 30 minutes from now, let alone how I’ll feel in months or years, and quite honestly, my dear, neither do you. If you feel yourself start to let one of these statements out of your mouth, I ask that you stop and bite your tongue so hard that it bleeds. Do not say this to anyone.
If reading the above felt like an attack, in a way it was. My hope is that calling out shitty behavior will prompt some self-reflection and for that, I applaud you for continuing to read on. If you aren’t sure where to go next, not to worry. I have a list of beneficial behaviors that will help steer you in the right direction.
Show up and hold space Not with a million people, not with a bottle of booze, or an ulterior motive to “make me happy.” Just simply show up and shut up. It is not your responsibility to be my personal joy committee. I want silence. It’s golden. I need to work my process and collect my thoughts and not have any additional external stimulation. Hold me, let me cry, let me feel what I need to feel, but please shut the fuck up while I do it. I don’t want tissues, empty words, or judgement because that’s not helpful.
Shelf your shit Sitting in silence and holding space may be new to you and so, of course, this is going to feel weird AF, but that’s a good thing! Letting me work my process will be a test for you too. While I’m working through the roller-coaster of sadness, rage, disbelief, and all the other confusing emotions associated with grief, I beg that you please come with an open mind and that you shelf whatever I might trigger in you.
You need to take yourself out of the equation, because honestly, this isn’t about you; it’s about those of us who are grieving. When you go home, you’ll need your own support network to help you process your own emotions, but you cannot put that responsibility on the grieving person. Ever.
Non-judgement This is crucial if you are showing up for support. Grieving people sometimes say and feel all kinds of crazy shit. It’s a whirlwind of emotions and if they open up to you about what’s going on inside, and you meet them with judgement or try to diminish their feelings, trust me, they will never forget that. Don’t be that guy. Or gal.
Non-attachment Now, this kind of goes hand in hand with the whole non-judgement thing, but I think this goes a little bit deeper. What is non-attachment exactly? Well, in this case, when someone who is grieving starts to say things like, “I wish I could be with them,” or “Why didn’t they take me?” or any sort of bargaining with the great creator that does not, and I repeat does not, mean they are suicidal. They are working their process and every single person who loses someone asks those questions. This might make you feel uncomfortable, but trust me, you have to shut up and hold space for this. Let them work it out. Do not diminish feelings or meet it with, “Well I would be so sad if you weren’t here” — because no fucking shit, lady, I know I’m not killing myself, but hearing you say that is not what I need to hear right now.
Say what you mean and mean what you say Remember the “if you need anything” people? Let’s revisit that. If you tell someone to reach out if they need anything, mean it. A phone call to vent, a car ride, food, company, whatever it is. Show up 100 percent.
Check in, but please don’t smother me An occasional no-pressure check-in can be lovely, but if you are calling nonstop expecting me to tend to your needs, sorry you are getting cut off. Life hasn’t gone back to normal for me, and quite honestly, I simply do not have the bandwidth to deal with anything outside of my immediate frame of mind. With that said, also don’t take offense if it takes me a week to respond to you. Also, to this note, please make sure I have what I need from a safe distance. If you notice I need food, water, or anything at all please don’t make a spectacle of it. Gently offer and back off.
Losing someone you planned your life with isn’t something that anyone can prepare you for. It’s a hole in my soul that will be with me for the rest of my life.
The one thing I can hope from this experience is to help people understand that most of what our society teaches us about grief etiquette is not only wrong but lacks any real emotion of comfort whatsoever.
It’s better to call out your own discomfort in the situation than to just spew some toxic positive bullshit. We don’t want your “so sorrys.” We want space and time to heal without societal pressure to carry on or numb the pain.
Grief sucks. Don’t be a dick.