“I Don’t Know What To Say”

awkwardThese last 2 weeks have been weird for me. I know exactly 4 people who I was either friends with, or knew well enough that have passed away forcing me to mourn and 3 new baby boys that were brought INTO the world that encouraged me to smile. As awful as the loss is, it’s balanced by the same intensity as the joy. Lots of people know what to say in both situations, for some it comes naturally, for others, I get that it doesn’t. Getting tongue-tied because we get nervous is often a natural response and one that makes us anxious.

Sure, it happens to many of us in awkward situations. Finding the right words when presented with an uncomfortable scenario is difficult for most people. Going to a house of mourning to visit with the mourners is one of those times. Everyone entering the house has this kind of trepidation, like walking on eggshells while using their indoor voices out of respect, sort of like entering the library (but 100 times more intense). Not being able to initiate conversation makes this a weird one, so you sit (most of the time in the way way back, until someone closer gives up their seat) and wait until there is some contact. Whether it be visual or verbal, staring at the one mourning, until said mourner acknowledges your presence.

At the one house of mourning I visited twice in a weeks time, the mourner, Yarden, was gracious enough to call me out *even though I snuck in and slithered into my seat towards the back of the room that first time. All eyes turned and I felt the heat rise under my collar and I got  a case of dry-mouth so I stuck to nodding mostly and managed to eek out something pathetic, I can’t even remember to be sure.

The 2nd time however, I had this nervousness and couldn’t sit in just one seat, I kind of moved along the back row of chairs until I settled in one across from their bookcase. I listened intently to the stories, but I was just so sad. Everywhere I looked, I saw Stella. Her husband, her table, her chairs, her kids, her kitchen, her friends, her bathroom, her pictures. I teared up so many times, then my eyes looked away, or so I thought. I forced myself to just stare at the books in the bookcase, while wiping away the tears – after all this was not the time, the shiva, the 7 days of mourning are meant to make the mourner feel BETTER and here I was, watering up at every thought. But then my eyes settled on one book in particular. A book that I had lent her maybe 3-4 weeks before. She was so sweet when I lent it to her, smiling and gracious *as always, and we talked about the content not about the cancer. It was about something Japanese that I found interesting and wanted to chat with her about it after she read it. But staring at it there on the shelf, I thought that she probably never had a chance to read it. And that made me cry – again, so I stood up and tried to control myself in the bathroom. When I came out someone mentioned water so I quickly jumped at the opportunity to fill a  cup for Yarden, after all he sure was doing a lot of talking.  When I handed it to him, I kind of ended up sitting in a front row seat, right next to him  and managed to hold a normal conversation without losing it. But then someone said something – and before I could stop myself the waterworks began so I quickly moved away and hid in the kitchen – which only made it worse. There I stood with my hands on her counter-top, where she lovingly prepared meals for her family week after week, for us, her guests, for those just having babies, where she kneaded challah and I just cried and cried and cried some more. Removing my hands from the counter was like pulling them off a magnet, my arms were so heavy – I honestly can say that the grief had weighed me down. I finally got them off and reached up to the cabinet, thinking the counter had a power over me. And then I remembered a conversation we once had. It was about door handles. The very same cabinet door handles that I was now holding was the catapult I needed to calm myself down. Stella had warned us NEVER to purchase cheap handles, the ones that come in a few pieces and screw together – she told us how bad they were and it was her voice we listened to when it was time to purchase our own. I made my husband crazy looking, deciding, choosing but in the end we found what we needed, sturdy kitchen drawer and cabinet handles – so thanks Stella – for calming me down even after you were gone. For I could hear your voice in my head, and when I turned, your lovely son said some pretty powerful stuff to me (even though my eyes were still so watery) that truly made me smile. Though he was mourning, he said something to make ME feel really great and this made it easier to say goodbye.  Stella always put others at ease and so she passed this down and through to her husband, and her children. I was able to smile – though in awe for this wonderful child and moment.

Now, there is also an online version of this awkwardness…though I understand how many people feel more comfortable reaching out virtually, it kind of removes the one-on-one discomfort – I feel strongly against this public display on Facebook, I mean there is a message option for goodness sake. But when people, presumably not the closest of friends (or those less FB savvy) write on the wall of someone who just lost a spouse things like: “there are just no words” or even less “there are no words”, I feel like screaming. Really? Honestly! There are tons, lots, billions, zillions of words one can choose to comfort someone else. I can understand being socially awkward in these physical situations but to verbalize or write ‘there are no words’ is absurd and a cop-out and lazy and irritating. What is the mourner supposed to do with that?!? Just copy and paste what someone else wrote if you find it difficult to find the right words. Or just type, “I’m so sorry for your loss”.

I didn’t mean to end this piece will this particular pet peeve of mine, but I guess, there you have it. If you read this, think before you write – take an extra minute to get some thoughts together if it doesn’t just come naturally and if you STILL have a problem – then just copy someone else. The point really is to just communicate to the other person that they are on your mind, you’re thinking of them and that you cared enough to acknowledge. So say something, other than, “I have no words”. Please. Even saying “I don’t know what to say” is better. It’s honest, it shows vulnerability, and at the end of the day, isn’t that better than saying nothing. Literally, saying nothing.

So today, even though I am not celebrating Thanksgiving, I am most thankful for the friendship I had with Stella.



  1. Hi Cheri,
    This is a big pet peeve of mine, too. What’s interesting is that those with chronic illnesses like me go through the same thing. People don’t know what to say to us since “get better” doesn’t work, or they say things that make us feel worse. Often, they are just so freaked out–just like when someone dies–that they make a quick exit from our lives for good.

    As death is part of the circle of life, I see illness as an extension of that and something most of us are not spared of. And you’re right, people need to say something (and preferably non-offensive).

    I’m truly sorry about your friend Stella, who was obviously taken much too soon, but you have kept her memory alive by sharing her with the world in your post. So, you did know what to say in the end: it’s the littlest things you remember about someone that are often the most profound.
    Hugs, A

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