Grief Talk Tuesday: Operating Instructions

I need steady background noise in order to sleep. I tried a sound machine once, but each sound setting was on a loop. Instead of falling sleep, I was a moth drawn to flame. I’d concentrate on (and anticipate) the end of the loop, over and over and over. After a week, the machine went in the trash and I bought a small plastic fan that, for years, lulled me to sleep. One night last week, my cute little fan woke me up when it started vibrating violently, like it would leap off the dresser and run off into the night (or become a completely different type of device). I stumbled out of bed to turn it off and, when I couldn’t go back to sleep, turned on my phone and read reviews for sound machines. Surely they’d improved in ten years.

After a few minutes, I found one with more than 29,000 positive reviews. Advertised as having “twenty non-looping natural soothing sounds,” I put it in my cart and checked out.

A few days later, my new sound machine arrived. I plugged it in and, without reading the user manual, I scrolled through the “twenty non-looping natural soothing sounds.” There were four types of white noise, four types of fans, three types of rain, three streams, three ocean settings, singing birds, a campfire and lastly…

A train??? What in the H*LL…???

Since Bruce’s death in a train wreck, I’ve learned to tolerate trains, or at least the sound of their whistle. I even took the Amtrak from Minneapolis to Washington D.C. once. But it’s not like trains appear out of nowhere. They require tracks, obviously, so when I see tracks, I understand that a passing train is a possibility. I was not anticipating a train whistle in my bedroom, and it was a little triggering.

Shame on me for not reading the operating instructions.  It was right there in black and white.

In a recent Grief Writing Sundays session*** (before the sound machine incident), our prompt was to write about grief through the portal of a user manual. I modeled my writing on the operating instructions for my vacuum cleaner because I liked how the safety section was worded—like a drill sergeant wrote it—and I thought about what I wished people knew about supporting someone who is grieving. This is the list I came up with:

  1. NEVER ASSUME that time heals. It doesn’t. When someone you love dies, you can’t avoid the pain, no matter how difficult it is to feel, and as family and friends, we should not encourage anyone to skip that part.
  2. ALWAYS CHOOSE silence over the sound of your own voice telling them they’ll be OK or they’ll move on or they’ll meet someone new. Silence can seem rude or uncomfortable, but let your loved one cry without responding. Their tears are talking. You don’t have to.
  3. DO NOT CHANGE the subject when they talk about their loved one. (If their words make you uncomfortable, see #8.)
  4. DO NOT DISCONNECT if you don’t know what to say. This will cause a malfunction in your relationship. If you consider yourself a friend, or if your family bond is tight, get over yourself and show up. Grief isn’t a communicable disease, but it certainly should be communal. And if you live far away, send a note. Don’t be afraid to write the deceased’s name and offer a memory. This is not inappropriate. Death is silence enough. Reading their name helps keep their life real and memory alive
  5. ALWAYS ASSURE them of your love and care. Check in with an email or a card letting them know you’re thinking of them and are available if they need something. Invite them to coffee or to have a meal, and don’t be offended if they say no. Keep trying. If your friend or loved one isn’t comfortable socializing, offer to bring over takeout.
  6. NEVER ASK if you can have something that belonged to their loved one, especially if that something is their child (Note: this was an actual thing that happened to me when Bruce died.)
  7. NEVER TALK to others about what you witness in a private moment with someone who is grieving. Gossip is never appropriate, especially after someone has died.
  8. DO NOT make your comfort their concern.
  9. TO RESET: Put yourself in their shoes. What would you want to hear? What would you want people to do? What do you think would be most helpful?

Our job, as people orbiting a person who is grieving, is not to look on the bright side or to “solve” their grief. Be there, be honest, listen, offer kind, supportive words, and most important, remember the deceased. In doing that, you’re not only helping those who grieve, you honor the person who died.


I’m giving away one free Grief Writing Sunday session (a $10 value). NO WRITING EXERPERIENCE NECESSARY! It’s a great introduction to writing/journaling about grief in a safe, supportive environment. If you’d like your name thrown in the hat, leave a comment or send me an email at I’ll announce the winner in my next Grief Talk Tuesday on January 18.

5 thoughts on “Grief Talk Tuesday: Operating Instructions

  1. As a widow of 8 months I think your advice is spot on. I would add that grief is not a disease to be “cured.” Some people expect people who have suffered a great loss to “get back to normal” but no one ever goes back to being that same person again. The task is to come the new version of one’s self, incorporating the loss not pretending it didn’t happen.

    1. Trish, I’m so sorry for your loss. You are so right, grief is something that never goes away, and we can’t be the person we were before our person died. Thank you for reading. May you find peace in your memories.

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