Recently I heard about the death of an elderly relative of my husband. When I said, “I’m sorry,” the person telling me said: “What’s to be sorry about? She’s out of her misery!” Then an acquaintance told me of the failing health of her parents, and I again said, “I’m sorry to hear it.” “Well, they’re in their 80s,” she shrugged. “Nothing to be sorry about.” What is the correct response when you hear about illness and death?
Anonymous / Boston
They left you feeling as though you’ve stepped on a rake, conversationally, haven’t they? I’ve been there myself, and I sympathize.
I also sympathize with the Rejectors of the Sorry. I had to revise this column, because my mother died after I submitted it. Here is what I originally wrote: “My own mother is in hospice care in a nursing home, living with the exact kind of debilitation and dementia she dreaded her entire busy, bustling, cookie-and-tale-bearing life. My feelings when she dies, I suspect, will be extraordinarily complicated, but it’s hard to imagine her actual death will bring me more sorrow than I currently have.”
My suspicions were correct. It’s easy to accept sympathy from family and other close friends who understood the nature of the situation. It’s harder to grapple with well-meaning condolences from people who seem to want me to feel a kind of orphaned-ness that I simply don’t. All that happened a long time ago for me. You see what I mean? Sometimes death isn’t the worst part at all.
Even when death is the worst part, it can be discombobulating to the bereaved to be in the middle of an everyday conversation and then have to break the news and Perform Grief for a minute and transition back to ordinary talk. Not everyone can manage that gracefully. Your acquaintance, I bet, can’t easily do an emotional quick change from Sassy Neighbor to Empathic Daughter and back again in 30 seconds. She wasn’t rejecting or dismissing you so much as she was rejecting the role that the conversation was going to put her in.
Which still leaves you, perfectly nice Anonymous, feeling rhetorically bereft. But there’s a fix, an easy six-word extension to your “I’m sorry” that can solve your problem. “That must be difficult for you,” you add. This focuses the conversation on the mourner rather than the deceased (or ailing), and thereby allows the other person to respond according to how he or she actually feels: gratitude for family chipping in, anger at the state of end-of-life care, grief at losing the person, or any of the infinite other shades of mourning. It also puts the person in a good position to respond “It really has been” or “It hasn’t been so bad, actually” and change the subject.
Those of us who have lost a loved one should try to hear and respond to the “I’m sorry”s as though they were followed by those six words. You can be authentic about your feelings without flinging kind people’s sympathy back in their faces. I’ve been going with “I’m relieved her suffering is over, and my cousins have been amazing,” which is true and gives the conversation somewhere to go — we can now talk about my cousins rather than my mother and me. This response saves the other person’s face and guards my heart as well.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.
DO YOU NEED ADVICE ON HOW TO HAVE THE MOST DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at firstname.lastname@example.org.