This post is about something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I haven’t gotten around to putting it into words. And since today has been exactly one month since the event that caused these thoughts, I figured today was as good a day as any other.
When someone dies, it’s natural to want to comfort those who were closest to that person. Obviously, they are grieving, even devastated. Even people on the periphery of a tragedy often need to be comforted. And that’s fine, but I think most of us realize that finding the right words is difficult. Nothing you say can bring that person back, so what’s the point? Still, you have to say something. But I really believe the absolute worst thing you can say is “I know how you feel.”
Let me explain why. One month ago, one of my very best friends, Meagan, lost her younger brother. He was 20 years old, and he was killed in a single car accident very early in the morning (or very late at night, depending on how you look at it). I was extremely upset about this, having known Taylor, and also just knowing Meagan and the rest of her family. The following Monday, I told my co-workers about this incident and asked them to pray for my friend and her family (I work at a Christian company, so this was normal). Everyone was very understanding, especially since I choked up while telling them about it, and several people said things to me like “we’re praying for them” and “I’m so sorry,” etc. But one person, who is an absolutely wonderful person, so this is nothing against them, said to me “I know how you feel Samantha, I really do.” I absolutely know that this person meant well, and was just trying to comfort me. And it’s not so much that it made me upset, it’s just that it’s kind of crazy how inaccurate and inappropriate that statement was.
I’m sure all they meant was that they had lost someone of a similar relationship, or in a similar circumstance, to the one I described. But the thing is, that doesn’t mean they knew how I felt. By it’s very definition, “I know how you feel” is totally false. Feelings are the absolute most personal and intimate thing we have. They’re completely internal, and even if you tell someone exactly how you feel, they still probably don’t know the whole story. So how can anyone ever “know how I feel?”
The reason this struck me so much is because of all the feelings I had about this loss. There was no way for anyone to know exactly how I felt. For one thing, I was truly sad because like I said, I knew the young man who was killed. He was such a wonderful person, and it was a tragedy that his life was cut so short. On the other hand, I am closer to his sister than I was to him. I was hurting terribly for Meagan, who had lost her only brother, who she was incredibly close with. Her life would never be the same, and that made me incredibly sad as well.
On top of that, just six months earlier, Meagan had married my best friend from high school, Patrick, in Austria. Jon and I attended the wedding, along with Meagan’s entire family of course. Over the four or five days we were all together (not to mention the other wedding events before and after), I got to know the entire family pretty well – her mom, step-dad, dad, step-mom, two sisters, and of course her brother. That wedding was one of the most fun times I’ve had recently, and I really came to know and love Meagan’s family. I will never forget during the wedding ceremony, when all the parents were asked to stand, and Meagan had four parents, instead of two. I had always thought of divorced families as being “more complicated” especially when it came to things like a wedding. But in Meagan’s case, it was so beautiful to realize that instead of complications, she just had more love. More parents to love her and be so happy for her on the most important day of her life. So when Taylor died, I was also hurting for the entire family, who I knew were all devastated. Knowing them all individually just multiplied the pain, realizing how much they were each individually hurting.
But it doesn’t stop there – because I, like Meagan, am also an older sister. I have two younger brothers who I love more than anything. One of them in particular is not much younger than Taylor was, and I couldn’t help thinking of him. What if this had been him? I know it’s a terrible way to think, but it was involuntary. It made me put myself in Meagan’s shoes even more, and it was almost immobilizing.
But one of the biggest ways that this tragedy affected me, and the main reason why no one could really know how I felt, was the memories that it brought back. My senior year of high school, my best friend Lauren was killed in a car accident very similar to the one that killed Taylor. That was the hardest time of my life, and while I still think of and miss Lauren every day, it’s not often that all the hard memories of her death come rushing back like that. I couldn’t help thinking of her and how devastated I was, and again projecting those feelings onto Meagan and putting myself in her shoes even more. Through each step of the days that followed Taylor’s death, I remembered how I’d felt at that stage after Lauren’s, and I felt those feelings all over again.
I hope this doesn’t come out sounding selfish or self-pitying, because I don’t mean it to. I was not even close to being the person most impacted by the tragedy of Taylor’s death, obviously. I was on the periphery, but I still needed to be comforted. And while everyone means well, and no one can ever know the right things to say, no one could have truly known how I felt. You never can. You never know what life events and relationships have colored the grief of someone who has lost a loved one. No matter how well you know them, you can never know how they feel. So tell them that you love them, that you’re there for them if they need to talk. Tell them you’re sorry for their loss, even though they’ll hear those words a million times. Most importantly, share your wonderful memories of their loved one with them. Sometimes that helps the most.
Just remember that you don’t know how they feel.