22 Jul

What Should I Say?

This post is part of a series on grief and loss, following my work as a grief counselor at Hospice of the Valley.

Sympathy Card by EverydaySummit

Sympathy Card by EverydaySummit

I had in mind an order to the topics I wanted to cover in this series – a sort of logical layout of a curriculum, if you will. There was a structure to it, something that made sense. But grief doesn’t always make sense. It’s messy.

The sudden and tragic death of a coworker’s family member earlier this week brought into focus the piece that probably needs talking about most. When someone we know and care about is grieving, how can we help?

When someone they love has died, what should I say?

One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is to allow people to express their feelings of grief – to invite it, even. We live in a grief avoidant society. Funerals are quick to be arranged, and mourners are often back at work after a three-day bereavement leave. We ask, “how are you?”, but there is an expectation for the “right” response. So often, I’ve heard from mourners who have resigned themselves to saying, “I’m fine,” knowing that’s what people want to hear. They’re not fine. But after a few days, they sense that’s all that’s allowed with most of their friends and acquaintances.

Many of us are uncomfortable with painful emotions. Naturally, we want our loved ones to feel good, so we do what we can to cheer them up. But feeling pain is part of what is supposed to happen when someone we love has died. Expressing that pain is necessary for the healing work of mourning. When we admire a mourner for her “strength” or encourage her to “keep your chin up”, we send the message that sadness and despair are not okay. We take away the means for healing.

The paradox of entering into the pain lies in the truth that as you affirm someone’s feelings of suffering, you are also affirming his eventual capacity to move beyond those feelings.

-Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers

So how can we help when people are grieving? Ask them how they are doing – and listen to their response. Don’t try to minimize or take away their pain. Don’t “help” them look on the bright side. Listen to their sadness. Let them cry. Allow them to talk about their loved one. Tell them you’re sorry for their loss. Say the name of the person who died. Tell them how special you thought that person was. Send them a card, letting them know you’re thinking of them.

Do this right after the death. And do this again in the weeks and months that follow. Know that there may be lots of support right away – and that, after a month or so, a lot of that support falls away. Grief is not something that we “get over” – it is a lived process of change, and its effects last far longer than many people expect. Clients often tell me when they feel they’ve reached their “time limit” with friends and family. After a certain number of weeks or months, they notice that the calls and questions and offers of help have gone away, and they wonder, is there something wrong with me? Should I be over this? Know that months and years after the death, the person who has died still lives on in their loved one’s memory. Again, ask them how they are doing – and listen to their response.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some common, well intentioned statements that usually do more harm than good. Try to avoid saying:

  • I know just how you feel.*
  • She’s in a better place now.
  • It was God’s will.
  • You should… or, You shouldn’t…
  • It’s time to move on.
  • You have to get on with your life.

However well meaning these statements are, assumptions and advice are not what mourners need to feel supported. Remember, you can’t take away their pain, and they don’t expect you to. Your loving presence and open acceptance of where they are in their grief right now is the best gift you can give.

*When I talk with clients about what they wish people would stop saying, this is almost always the number one response. We have been conditioned to use phrases that express empathy, but the fact is – you don’t know how they feel. Grief is, in large part, an individual experience, unique to the mourner and their relationship with the person who has died. You may have had experiences of loss that help you to connect with their pain – use those experiences to remember those feelings, and then open your heart to what the mourner needs in this moment.