Why You Shouldn’t Say You Can’t Imagine Someone’s Grief

“Wow, I just can’t imagine.” That’s what people emailed, texted, and uttered after my parents died. They couldn’t imagine losing a mother to a violent car accident or a father, a mere four years later, to a heart attack in the middle of the night while he was traveling abroad. I was 34 and felt truly alone, and while talking to someone about my grief would have helped immeasurably, “I can’t imagine” felt like the opposite of an invitation—it felt like a warning. Don’t even try to share, I won’t get it. However, if I was grieving too much, as it was for many others, then what should I do?

“I can’t imagine.” Families and individuals who have lost children, siblings, partners, and friends hear it all the time, this confession of an inability to imagine the worst, the unspeakable, the most feared event. I understand why people offer the phrase—as an earnest gesture of solace or a filler in lieu of anything else—but it rarely brings comfort. The recipients often feel even worse when they are already feeling isolated after a loss.

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The truth is, it’s not that we can’t imagine the experience. It’s that we don’t want to. In saying that the deep loss someone is feeling is too unbearable to picture, what we’re really doing is drawing a line: It’s not yours or mine. Maybe we believe we could prevent all this suffering, the chaos, fear and unrest from affecting our personal lives. But if this global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that grief doesn’t work that way. Everyone can grieve, even if it’s not right now.

I was a co-founder of the company in 2013.Modern Loss has a worldwide community and publication called Modern Loss. It is dedicated to helping people through long periods of grieving. As I scrolled aimlessly through Instagram’s history, the post that had announced 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in America was stopped me cold. Scrolling back to September 23, 2020 I found another grim post that marked a milestone of 200,000. The number was described at the time as “unfathomable.”

Now we’re at roughly 1 million. It’s a number close to Austin or Odesa (Ukraine), at least up until recent. It feels both unbelievable and impossible to believe. Given the fact that the deaths from pandemics are causing more than the usual mortality rate, the actual number may be even higher at 200,000.

“Can you imagine?” For a while, we had a pretty good excuse not to: We set off on this terrible adventure under an Administration that tried to convince us that we should not be afraid of this new virus, nor should we let it “dominate” our lives. When reality was separating us from our reality, it tried to disengage us from that reality. For so long, we were physically separated from one another, trying to deal with our own “new normals,” which likely involved the addition of too many roles and the subtraction of others. Aside from glimpses on screens, we didn’t see the insides of other people’s homes. And so we didn’t see the people who inhabit those homes going through the motions of daily life after a loved one’s death.

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We must now look at what is gone and try to resume face-to-face interactions, at least among variants. We must do our best to seek out and learn people’s stories. We must check in on those we know, but also ask a stranger, “How are you?” and actually listen to the answer. And if someone throws a fit about the temperature of the milk in their latte, we must remember that we don’t know what kind of grief they might be shouldering, due to COVID-19 or otherwise. All masks can be seen.

These stories must be heard, no matter how difficult. Public health is in crisis. Last week, I spent $200 on a rapid PCR test that was required. It had been available for free until March. Congressional Democrats included national bereavement job-protection policies in the Build Back Better Act proposal and then couldn’t pass it. Recent grief has been acknowledged in our country. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental DisordersThe term Chronic grief DisorderWe feel lonely.

The pandemic will not end; it is certain that there will be more milestones than the one-million mark. And the “grief pandemic” will far outlast the public-health emergency. Researchers last year found that for every COVID-19 death, there are nine people who are directly affected—the “bereavement multiplier,” they call it.

It’s hard to knowThere are many things you can say, even if it seems difficult. However, there is nothing worse than saying nothing. What I’ve witnessed, what I know to be true, is that storytelling is how we bring one another into our loss experiences and offer meaningful, powerful support. This means telling stories about our lost loved ones—that little joke they told so often that the rest of the family would start rolling their eyes upon hearing the first word, that thing they used to cook that somehow made everything OK, that time they messed up big-time and taught us an important lesson because of it, that special way they held us in their gaze. But it also means talking about our own suffering in the wake of that person’s death—the longing we feel when the nightly phone calls we’ve come to expect suddenly stop, the breakdowns in public settings, the moments we are completely focused on something else and then remember.

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Talking about how we’re feeling, how we’re coping, what we miss about our person (or, possibly, people) lessens the burden of sadness. Sharing memories keeps those we’ve lost present in our hearts and minds, and reminds us that the intensity of our grief is a sign of having loved deeply. Storytelling is how we create community, pull one another through the darkness, realize what others are going through—financially, psychologically, physically, intimately, logistically. This inspires people to advocate for greater government protection and support. It also helps remove stigma from something that shouldn’t have been. Stories, not numbers are what make people feel heard. Recognizing and acknowledging others is crucial for healing. It is important to use our imagination to not make grief feel miserable but also to help others cope with it.

Hamilton, there is a song about grief called “It’s Quiet Uptown,” in which the cast sings about Alexander and his wife Eliza enduring the “unimaginable”—the death of their child.

There are moments that the words don’t reach

There’s a grace too powerful to name

What we don’t understand is what we push aside

The impossible is not possible.

When the track appears in my playlist, it is tempting to skip ahead. It’s possible that I would prefer something more positive, hopeful, distracting or innocuous as an aural background. Each time I think about putting it aside. But I do listen. Then, I visualize.

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