A man with another person's hand on his shoulder is surrounded by cloud-shaped speech bubbles.

The Rule of Thumb

At least he’s not suffering anymore. At least you had the chance to say goodbye. At least you know your dad was proud of you. At least it gets easier as times goes by.

"At least" is defined as at the minimum or if nothing else. It’s typically used to add what some may think is a positive comment about something that is generally negative.

It is easy to sympathize with someone when you have had the same type of experience. But it is harder to empathize when you have never gone through the same experience. The passing of my dad from prostate cancer took me on a journey to learn the “rules of thumb” for things not to say to a person who has been diagnosed with cancer or has lost someone from it.

Rule 1: it’s not about you

Often friends, family, and even acquaintances learn about your grief and try to sympathize with everything you’re going through. After my dad’s prostate cancer diagnosis, an acquaintance would always say, “Be strong for your dad and your mom.”

After my dad’s passing, I heard, “Yeah, I know exactly what you’re going through, because I felt the same way when my cousin or grandmother died.” The father of a good friend of mine passed away from lung cancer a couple years after my dad. She and I lost our fathers to cancer; however, she wasn’t close to her dad in the same way. It doesn’t minimize her pain. It’s a true testament that everybody’s journey is different.

The conversation has now shifted from the griever to the “wanna be” empathizer. As grievers, we want to know that you’re listening, not giving advice. This is not the time to make the conversation about your past experiences. Although it may not be intentional, I think it is extremely rude. It devalues the feelings of what the griever is feeling in that very moment.

Rule 2: let them feel what they feel

Do not tell a griever to be strong, in my opinion. Strong means able to withstand great force or pressure. How can I be strong when I just lost the strongest person I knew and loved (my dad)?

Grieving is not an overnight fix. It is a process, and it happens in stages. Every emotion fathomable is an emotion I felt: anger, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, disappointed, fearful, and scared. Some days are good, some are bad. There are even days that feel like they have simply stopped.

Years have gone by since my dad passed. It does not get easier. You just learn strategies that help get you through each day. Holidays, birthdays, and family vacations will never be the same again. You just learn how to cope.

Rule 3: don’t ask, just do

I found it very unsettling when others said, "Let me know if you need anything." Or, "Let me know when you’re free."

Although the gesture sounds and seems nice, often there was no follow-up with a statement like this. In a person's time of grief, we don’t know what we need, let alone to call, and tell someone else about a need.

Grievers need to eat. Empathizers must understand that it’s much easier to bring food to the griever's home, leave it on the doorstep, or reach out to the griever to ask them out to lunch. Planning in the hands of a griever will surely be empty, especially when we are just trying to make it every second of every hour without falling apart.

The power of silence

Overall, an “at least” statement from others is not a form of comfort, nor a consolation prize. The unfortunate part about life is knowing that we all will eventually be at the crossroad of being a sympathizer AND an empathizer.

Be the person you would want someone to be to you. Through my experience, I have learned that it is okay to just physically be there without saying anything. Silence can be golden.

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