Why Do People Say, ‘I Know How You Feel’? They Don’t!

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

After I suddenly lost my husband to an accident last month, I attended a few grief support group meetings at the urging of my sister, who thought it might be beneficial for me to be around other people who had “experienced loss.” Although I didn’t feel ready (and still don’t), I agreed. Now I regret it. The other people in the group are also grieving, but their circumstances are different than mine. One lost her husband to cancer over a period of years. At least they were able to get everything in order and say goodbye to each other! One man in his 90s lost his life partner of the same age. At least they had 60-plus years together and the death wasn’t unexpected! One woman lost her damn dog! I love dogs, but she was in the wrong room, as far as I’m concerned.

And all of them wanted to tell me they knew what I was going through. “I know how you feel,” the elderly man said to me more than once. No, you don’t! You cannot possibly understand how I felt losing my husband at age 37 less than an hour after we talked on the phone about having chicken and pineapple shish kebabs that evening. We had our whole lives ahead of us. Your whole lives were behind you.

I know these people mean well and are just trying to comfort me, but when apples were being compared to oranges, all I could feel was anger and resentment. Find me a support group for 34-year-old widows whose 37-year-old husbands fell off a ladder and hit their heads while trying to clean their mother-in-law’s gutters, leaving behind three children and unknown potential, and then we’ll talk. Failing that, don’t tell me you know how I feel because you don’t. Why is that so hard? —On My Own

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Dear On My Own,

You have identified a common frustrating part of experiencing grief—platitudes from well-wishers who actually make things harder rather than easier. Nobody knows what you feel—not even a group of 34-year-old widows who lost their husbands in tragic accidents. Nobody. Your experience of grief is shaped entirely by your circumstances, experiences, and the way you make meaning of events in your life.

While your sister’s impulse was good—find connections with people who “get it”—it sounds like that wasn’t what you needed at the time. My recommendation would be to find someone you can work with on your own so you can express your anger, frustration, sadness, loss, and rage against the events that took your partner from you.

There may be a time when you are in a different place in your grieving process that a group might be helpful for you, but now is clearly not the time. Hearing other people’s stories of loss isn’t making you feel connected; it’s making you feel more isolated. That is not what you need right now.

There may be a time when you are in a different place in your grieving process that a group might be helpful for you, but now is clearly not the time. Hearing other people’s stories of loss isn’t making you feel connected; it’s making you feel more isolated. That is not what you need right now.

And while nobody can know what you are feeling, there are some aspects to grieving that seem to be shared across many experiences. First, there is no single right way to grieve and there is no timeline. You will, over time, feel less raw, but grief is not a process you complete and move on from. It transforms you. And even when you have worked through the expected stages—denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, acceptance—something will likely show up that throws you right back into the mix again. Some of it is predictable—birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, Father’s Day—but some may happen on a random Thursday when a song, a smell, an article of clothing will transport you back, for a brief moment, to the gut punch that is loss.

And while I can’t offer any words of consolation—for there are no adequate words—know that what you experience is yours, and that you can heal. One of the paths of healing, however, lies in connecting with others—hence your sister’s suggestion of a support group. Nobody knows your experience of your particular loss, yet there are people who do share your experience of feeling alone in their grief with nobody who understands. Maybe you can connect on that level. You also have three small people who are sharing in your grief in their own ways. If you haven’t already connected them with resources, please do. It may also be helpful to get support for you all together—through a family counselor, perhaps—to help you grieve together as you grieve independently.

You asked why it is so hard for people to understand how unhelpful their “helpful” words actually are—and in part it is because caring people want to help, want to connect, and want to make things better. Unfortunately, we don’t always know how to do so. There are no adequate words, so we stumble for them. We are often profoundly uncomfortable with witnessing the distress of others, so we try to make it okay. Your loss is not okay. But you will be. Find the people who can just sit with you without needing you to be any way other than you are in that moment. Rage, cry, laugh, reminisce, do what you need to do, and then find the things that bring you hope, that help you feel connected and not so very much on your own.

Best of luck,

Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC

Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Augustin

    September 9th, 2017 at 8:08 AM

    I know that at times this could feel pretty inconsiderate but you have to know that when most people say this they really don’t mean anything by it. They just want you to know that they sympathize with you and what you are going through. No they might not know exactly how you feel but they are making an effort to get closer to you and to show that they care. Could you ever look at it from that angle?

  • Ashlee

    September 12th, 2017 at 2:05 PM

    Good grief everything makes people upset these days! I don’t profess to know how you feel but goodness isn’t it just being seen as being nice to tell someone that you understand what they are going through?

  • Erika

    September 12th, 2017 at 2:19 PM

    @Ashlee- I think the key point is that while those words are meant as a kindness they aren’t always received that way. It can feel dismissive and invalidating- which is not the intention at all. And the person who is grieving doesn’t have to rise above to hear the intent and be grateful for it. Those of us supporting the grief-stricken ought to be considerate of how our good intentions land.

  • Pauline

    September 13th, 2017 at 10:37 AM

    I think that maybe I should just take over a good casserole from now on ;)

  • Hazel

    September 24th, 2017 at 3:05 PM

    Hello. While you are right that they do not know how you feel because the situation is different, I hope you can also look at that old man’s perspective. Yes he had about 60 years behind him with his late wife, while you just were starting life together, but from his perspective, losing someone who has been your companion every day of 60 years, one you sleep with, one you wake up to every single day, then gone, no one gets really prepared for it. What makes it worse is the elderly depression – hardly any friends anymore, can’t be productive, the self-pity of being weak and sickly maybe, he lost his best friend of 60 years. Plus the thought that 99% chance he won’t find anyone else. While I know you are grieving and I do not know the depth of the pain, you are young and still have many opportunities in life and, someday, in love. He doesn’t. All I am saying is, we all have our pains. It may be different than yours but the old man also has serious reasons to grieve, and he just means well too. I am truly sorry for your loss, and no amount of words can heal, but, this is all the first part of the grieving process, gradually, baby steps to recovery.

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