As someone who has a bunch of kiddos and loves reading and writing, I am surrounded by words, both written and verbal. Probably because of that, I'm not often at a loss for words, though there are many times I have to hit "pause" in order to find the right ones to say. That's why I'm much more comfortable typing than talking. While I may fumble with some thoughts, or have trouble spitting the words out correctly, the computer has that great "delete" button and I can edit myself. It's a little safer that way and, hopefully, I have fewer foot-meet-mouth moments.
There is one area, however, where a lot of people are unsure of the words. It's a place difficult to imagine oneself, and an uncomfortable and scary place to be. This dark spot is the Land of Grief: a place of sorrow and loss and despair. Nobody likes it there and, honestly, words aren't enough to properly heal the pain. But words are necessary because we're human, and speaking is one of the main ways we try to communicate.
Grief, itself, is murky because it touches so many people uniquely. When our son Clinton died, it wasn't just us losing our son and our children losing their brother; it was our family members losing a nephew, grandson, or cousin. It was also the doctors and nurses losing a young patient and having to go home at the end of their shift with that as a new part of their own history. And it was our friends feeling their own grief over the sadness that had entered our lives. Everyone around us had their own personal feelings of how Clinton's brief life had affected them, and those were wrapped around the emotions they felt for what they imagined WE were dealing with. I remember my dad saying, "Han, of course I am sad that Clinton died, but I really feel so terrible for what you and John must be going through." So while we were taking our first steps in our New Normal, we were also trying to pave a way for all these amazing people to take their steps, too.
Then there's people's separate belief systems and faiths. Though these can be excellent sources of strength and peace, in finding the right words to share, you may come to realize not everyone wants to be preached to, or have the death rationalized away, or explained in the greater scope of being. Especially in the raw, up-front beginning. When we made our initial phone calls from Clinton's hospital room, taking turns holding his body in a way we couldn't when he was an open-chest patient, I had one such incident. There was love in the message's intent, it just wasn't the time for me to listen to the words. I gently interrupted and said, "I have to go now," and hung up the phone.
People need to mourn in their own way, and we must be respectful of that. A person doesn't ever get over a loss, a person gets through it. And it takes time. There's that first year of Firsts: the first day without X, the first week, the first holiday, the first day you don't cry at some point, the first day you laugh, the first day you wake up and it's not the first thing you remember ... the list goes on. At the beginning, it's similar to riding the ocean waves, up and down, at the mercy of something greater than you. One moment you are strong and secure on the crest; the next, a tsunami threatens to drown you. Until the emotional waters calm and everything you have been through becomes a part of who you are, a part of your story, and the ride smooths to an even keel.
People not in the immediate city of Grief, maybe just hanging in the suburbs, may not understand that ebb and flow of emotion. Don't worry about it: It's normal. So is experiencing a deep loss and being able to smile and laugh right away. However a griever feels is right and normal at the moment. Worry only if time goes by and you find that you're not moving through the days, that you're willing for time to stand still for too long a stretch. Know that you're not alone in those feelings and get help.
So, what are the right words? There are none that will fit everybody; it is not a One Size Fits All situation. And grief doesn't just have to be about the death of a person--pets are family to a lot of people--or even a death at all. A divorce or breakup, the loss of a job, any big change or upheaval in someone's life, can manifest the same type of emotions and feelings in a person.
Here's what to remember in order to help find the right words: Loss is not a competition; never compare someone's loss to your own. Grief and mourning are not benchmarks of greatness; if someone's not handling their "moving forward" process the same way you would, that's okay; it doesn't make one or the other of you better, just different. No one knows "just how" someone else feels. The best thing to do is offer love and support. Sometimes the honest and simplest words are the best ones. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say, but I want you to know that I love you and I am so sad for what you are going through." And sometimes no words are needed at all; sometimes you just need to be there to listen to the silence because no words are adequate.