There are lots of folks who make their living delivering trainings for people on how to deal with touchy situations in life, things like crisis management, sexual harassment training, diversity, other-abled sensitivity workshops, etc. As far as I can see it, there aren’t a lot of resources for instructing people on how to best support a person who is experiencing grief from loss in their lives.
There are times when I feel I must apologize for my fellow human beings when my clients share what people have said to them or some of the thoughtless ways they have been treated at their time of loss. I believe that people mean well. It’s just that most of us don’t have a very comfortable relationship with strong emotions like grief, anger, or hopelessness. When feelings like this are expressed in our midst, we will tend to gloss over it or try to shut it down entirely.
Learning to tolerate other’s reactions to your grief can be one of the most painful, yet necessary tasks of rebuilding your life after loss.
“You’re young, you’ll get married again someday.” “I know how you feel….my grandma passed away too.” “It’s been a year now, aren’t you over this yet?” “He’s moved on. You need to move on too.” “Don’t feel bad, he’s in a better place.” “You need to be strong for the children.” “Time heals all wounds.” If you are grieving the loss of your spouse through death or divorce, it’s likely that you’ve heard these types of statements from those in your world. How helpful are they? Not helpful at all, according to a study of grievers done by the Grief Recovery Institute.
One of the more unusual comments I’d heard was one that a widow shared with me. Someone asked her, “Do you feel him yet?” about her deceased husband. She was unsure what to reply to this. We bandied around a few options (some not fit to print) and she settled on something like, “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that.”
Many people just don’t know what to say when they encounter someone who is suffering. It’s a rare person who is comfortable enough with his/her own emotional life that can tolerate the grief of another. For those of you who are experiencing intense grief, I understand it’s enough to put you into a rage when you feel misunderstood on top of everything else you are going through. The thing about the statements above is that they cause more harm than good, even if the intentions behind them are the best. So why do people keep saying them? It's likely that they have not received feedback from a stunned griever that is sufficient to get the point across. In other words, we don’t know any better. Isn’t it time we learned?
In my perfect universe, everyone would be taught how to approach a grieving person with empathy and to really think before they do or say something that may unintentionally contribute to their suffering. I do understand that another person can’t “make” you feel anything, that each person has the responsibility for their reactions to people and situations in their lives. However, there are times when tact, good manners, and compassion are sorely lacking in our society and a little grief awareness and sensitivity training are in order. Think of it as Empathy 101….
Five Really Helpful Things You Can Do/Say if Someone You Know Is Grieving:
1. Ask, “How are you doing?” Then listen with your heart to the answer without changing the subject or terminating the conversation through one of the statements above. Create a space for them to talk about their experience if they would like to. You might feel honored that they trusted you enough to give an honest answer if it’s something other than “Fine.”
2. Say that you just found out about the loss from them. Rather than the obligatory “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sorry that your marriage didn’t work out for you,” try this instead: “I can’t imagine what this is like for you,” followed by “How are you doing?” Everyone’s grief is different. Even if you’ve experienced loss, you really don’t know how they feel. Let them tell you about it in their own words.
3. “I’d like to help. Would you like me to __________?” Insert specific tasks that you are willing to do that you think might be helpful like “mow the lawn, walk the dog, watch the baby, sit with you, help you clear the garage,” etc. Then show up and do it if the answer is “Yes.” Try to avoid the non-comittal, “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” No one believes you really mean it.
4. When someone cries in front of you, all you have to do is stay put and say something in a soothing voice like, “It’s OK….let that out….I’m here for you.” Comforting them with a touch on the arm or a hug is great too. Just do your best to stay present and don’t try to “fix” it. Don’t hand them a tissue unless they ask for it. The tears will come to a natural completion of their own accord.
5. Do your best to keep your relationship intact. Avoiding a grieving person because it’s uncomfortable for you to be with them is really hard for them. You can imagine the feelings of isolation they would be feeling if everyone in their lives reacted this way. It’s OK to say the name of the person that is gone. It’s OK to ask what happened. It’s OK to talk about the strangeness of it all. It’s even OK to cry in front of them or with them. Your silence and avoidance is what could make it truly painful for the griever.
People experiencing grief need to be heard, seen, understood, felt. They need to know that they aren’t alone. Know that your love and empathy will go a long way towards supporting a grieving person in their deepest time of need. Know that they would do it for you, too.
Love and Blessings on Your Journey,