Comforting Others in Times of Grieving and Loss: The Dos and Don’ts
What’s the worst thing you can imagine someone saying to a grieving person? Whatever you’ve just come up with in your head, I am willing to bet that it’s already been said aloud. And, not in an attempt to be insensitive, but by someone whose intentions were likely pure!
As a therapist, I speak with a lot of people about their experience with grieving and what support they’ve received to cope with the pain of their loss. I also hear a lot of stories about well-meaning, but misguided, comments that they’ve been told. At a recent luncheon, I met a young woman whose baby was born still. She shared that soon afterwards a neighbor had offered his condolences by comparing her loss with his mare’s stillborn colt. At the time, this thoughtless comment enraged the grieving mother. Today, her pain around this incident has lifted somewhat, partly due to the realization that the neighbor was probably trying to connect with her and to express empathy. What this neighbor will never know, however, is how his misstep has been remembered, discussed, and still hurts years later.
Knowing what to say to someone who is grieving is not always clear and it often raises our anxiety levels. We don’t want to accidentally say something that will cause more harm than good, like the neighbor in the story above. We ask ourselves: “What if I say the wrong thing? How could anything I say actually make the bereaved feel any better?” We try to quell the anxiety through rationalizations: “I’m sure that he’s getting lots of calls … I don’t want to overwhelm him.” It’s true, you cannot take away another’s grief. There are things that you can do and say, however, that can be helpful and supportive.
Here are some dos and don’ts:
Don’t . . .
… express platitudes such as “Heaven needed another angel.” The bereaved wants the deceased here with them now, alive.
…avoid or evade. Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing lead you to say nothing. Learn to tame your own anxiety around reaching out to the bereaved.
…try to make the bereaved feel better quickly or tell them to dry their tears. Grief is a natural part of the healing process and not a pathology. Allowing them time and a safe place to feel and express their pain is a true gift.
…respect their space by asking what they need. Offer the bereaved a compassionate ear. At times, they may accept and at others, they may need to retreat and regroup with some time alone. Grieving is exhausting work and takes a tremendous amount of energy.
…let the bereaved know that you are available to them and care. It can be something as simple as “I know that nothing I can say can take away the pain of your loss, but I want you to know that I care about you and am here for you.”
…be patient with yourself. If you stumble and accidentally say something that could be interpreted as minimizing the pain of the bereaved, apologize and take steps towards repair.
Do you have stories of your own where people have been insensitive to your loss?
How did you handle it?
How are you still dealing with it today?
What would have been most helpful for someone to say to you during that time?
Good Morning Marnee,
I’ve heard so many of these stories that you have shared, I sometimes I cannot believe that folks don’t think deeply before they speak. In our efforts here at O’Connor to educate professionals and lay volunteers, we strive to provide the right tools so they feel empowered to connect with grieving families in a more sensitive and caring manner. Your wisdom her justifies our efforts to educate, and makes me realize that we are doing the right thing.
When my dad died, I was heartbroken. It seemed that nothing was going to make it better and nothing was going to relieve the pain I felt in my heart. I missed him the moment I found out, knowing I would never again hear his voice or feel his wonderful hugs. I really don’t remember now, if anyone unknowingly said anything hurtful. I do however, remember the cards and notes I received.
We now live in an IT world, where everyone connects via Facebook, phone texting, Skype, etc. Gone are the days when we make an effort to write a note in a sympathy card and send it off. My dad died nearly 20 years ago, and I received many heartfelt words from my friends. Interestingly, I will still pull them out and read them. They not only remind me that my dad is gone, but they remind me how much love I received through those little notes of care.
So when I may be at a loss for words, I simply take pen to hand and send a note of love to a friend or acquaintance who has experienced a loss. I know now, from my own experience, that those notes hold wonderful memories my dad and of the friends who took the time to care.
Thank you again, Marnee, for reminding us how important it is to connect with the grieving. And, as the weeks and months go by, another note in the mail that says simply, “I’m thinking about you” will certainly bring comfort to a weary soul.
I can definitely relate to this post.
My neighbor recently lost her adult daughter unexpectedly in a freak accident. This is a neighbor I see frequently, as we usually walk our dogs around the same time.
I work for a mortuary and I found myself avoiding her! I would go out at different times so I did not run into her. If I was driving by I pretended not to see her.
The pain was written all over her face and I did not know how to approach her.
Finally I saw her getting her mail one day and forced myself to walk over to her. I just hugged her and told her I didn’t even have words, but I’m here. If she needs me to walk the dogs, share stories of her daughter, grab dinner, anything she might need.
It is hard to take that step, but what a relief once you do.
Thank you for these Do’s and Dont’s.
I will find them most useful next time I am in this situation.
It has been so gratifying to read everyone’s comments posted above. Thank you all for taking the time to share your personal experiences, and further the conversation on this subject.
Lori, your description of avoiding your grieving neighbor is not unique; I know that many people want to say something but have a hard time finding adequate words to express their empathy. It took a lot of courage for you to face the apprehension, and you say it was a relief when you did.
Patricia, I love your idea about sending a note a couple of months later, in addition to the initial support, to let the bereaved know that you are thinking about them. Some people might worry that, by doing so, they’ll be “reopening the wound” but it’s not usually so. Typically, the note will be well-received. After all, you certainly are not the one “reminding” them that their loved one is no longer here. They live with the loss every day. And, what a loving gesture it is to offer the added support when some time has passed.
Frannie, you have experienced tremendous loss. How wonderful to know that you have been supported and bolstered by others in your life who care for you.
Carrie, thank you for your comments. I can imagine that those comments, though well-intentioned, did hurt to hear.
Neil, what you said is so wise. Yes, it’s often the supportive and loving presence of our friends and family that we remember later, not necessarily the precise words.
I wish you and other readers a happy and safe holiday,
It has been so enlightening and helpful to read everyone’s postings. I believe that nothing but time and love are going to really begin to heal a broken heart and spirit, but a big hug and someone telling me (even months & years later) – “I’m so sorry for your loss” makes me feel a little bit better and stronger.
When expressing your feelings to another person who has just experienced a devastating loss – less is better! Your presence and hug is what they will remember – and like Pat said – that kind, loving handwritten note is there to reread even years later…
Thank you for discussing a very important subject.
Thank you so much for your comments. I agree: less is more.
Wishing you all the best,
Thank you for this very helpful blog. Sometimes answering the phone here at the Mortuary can be daunting. I surely appreciate the the “Do” of letting the person know you are there for them. I know that I’m a stranger to many of the families that contact us, but even a stranger can be there for you to walk with you and help in a difficult time. I try to reassure all of the families that I speak with, that I am just a phone call away, and will do my best to help in any way that I can. Even if it’s just to listen….
Thank you again,
Nicely said, Kari!
I can imagine that it can be daunting, being the one on the front lines, interacting with grieving families. What a comfort to know that yes, even a stranger can be a great support in times of loss.
Thank you for what you do!