Here's Why Condolences Were Such An Impactful Part Of My Grieving Process
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Grief is a nuanced and mysterious thing. There have been many studies on grief over the years, and the stages have been defined and redefined.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
Five distinct and classic stages that occur in a nonlinear experience, cycling through until finally some sort of peace is felt. Before I fully knew the grief of loss of a loved one, I spent a lot of time reading the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler. Their groundbreaking book, On Grief and Grieving, helped me through several traumatic experiences and even a bit of past trauma. That was before I fully felt the extent of deep pain and loss.
These stages don’t account for a few rogue aspects of grief, like the initial carnal wail, the complete soul-ripping sound that seems to be pulled from the core of the earth. I heard that wail from my sister when I told her our dad had passed away. I sat watching my phone screen on FaceTime while she crumpled up and hollowed out her bones with gruesome hollering and that wail. My husband held me through my own blood-curdling wail. It’s an unmistakable sound. No stage of grief fully captures this piece.
This brings me to condolence, the act of expressing sympathy for someone’s loss. There’s a piece of grief, perhaps a stage, hiding in the shadows of receiving condolences. As folks came and went from my grandmother’s house, hugging her as she sat motionless and staring, patting our shoulders, I realized it hurt to hear them say they cared. It hurt to hear their words of affirmation. Each person carried their words so delicately, handing them to us with such reverence. Yet each time the words landed on my heart, they stung a thousand stings.
Inbox messages of condolence began piling up. I read them. I couldn’t reply. The thought of reply felt cheap. What could I say? “Thanks, I’m sorry my dad died, too.”
I realized it hurt to hear them say they cared. It hurt to hear their words of affirmation. Each person carried their words so delicately, handing them to us with such reverence. Yet each time the words landed on my heart, they stung a thousand stings.
What I noticed was that as much as it hurt, it made a difference. I began to take note of those who said nothing. The folks I thought would care but remained silent to my grief. I tried not to judge or have resentment, but with each “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I realized many of my friends were going on with their lives without even looking in my direction. Somehow, the lack of acknowledgement, the lack of condolence, hurt worse than having to face those who stepped forward, their tidy words of shared suffering handed over so gently.
I’ve done this. I’ve avoided saying anything to someone who just had a loss. I’ve felt like it didn’t matter if I said something because everyone else already said it. I’ve looked away, stepped away, and avoided the discomfort because I’m human. And now, as I sit with the grief of my father’s passing, somewhere between anger and a slipping depression, I notice those who stepped up to say something.
David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving, has taken the stages of grief further. In his work, Finding Meaning, he offers a sixth stage of grief: finding meaning after acceptance. A way to honor our loved ones is through sharing the meaning we hold about them. And I’ve been thinking about how this plays into condolences and folks sharing stories of lost loved ones.
In the first few days after losing my dad, I was desperate to hear stories about him. I wanted to hear every story he ever told anyone and wanted to hear how other folks experienced a man who was, for me, larger than life. I needed to hear all the meaning right then, to save it and pocket it away for later. The condolences came. The stories came. The snippets of my dad shared by others filtered through the gray and bleakness I felt.
Grief is a nuanced and mysterious thing. The deep learning of pieces that work and pieces that may work later is humbling. The art of condolence lies in the shared pieces of healing and meaning for all who grieve, no matter the connection.