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?
Thank you so much for this posting. It is so encouraging to know that I don’t have to try to alleviate their pain and loss. All I really need to do is show up, express love and support for them. I know from my own grieving moments that just seeing the faces of dear friends who took the time to be present was all I needed them to do. Their thoughtful presence spoke everything my heart needed to hear.
This gives me greater confidence knowing what I can do and should avoid when it is my turn to be present for others. Thank you again,
Thanks for your blog, great topic and such a sensitive issue for all of us. Nobody knows what another is actually going through when grief strikes and we are dealing with a loss in our lives. We do not always know what to say, sometimes you do not have to say anything. Empathy is a word and action that we have been talking about great deal lately at O’Connors. The art of listening to understand, this is what most bereaved people need. Being there with an ear so they can tell their story without judgement. Very well intentioned people will say some pretty insensitive things to grieving people. When my infant son Matthew died some 16 years ago now, I can still remember some comments that just hit me like a punch in the gut… “You will have more children, you are still young” I did not want more children, I wanted him. “Oh he was so young, you really did not have much time to get to know him, when my dad died that was worse because I knew him my whole life” Now I also remember an outpouring of love from family and friends that gave me strength to move forward and the freedom to be whatever it was I needed to be in that moment. We are not perfect, we will say and do things that harm with out trying to do so, hopefully we can just be there for them and allow them the freedom to be what they need to be. Thanks for the great blog, we all need to be reminded of the do’s and dont’s.
I can only imagine how those comments must have wounded you. I appreciate your sharing…I know that reading of your experience can help to support others who are in a similar situation.
All the best,
Thank you for the insight on such a great topic. We all find ourselves in these types of situation at one time or another. It may be with someone close to you or someone you barely know. Being that everyone deals with death differently and grieves differently it is always helpful to know what to say or what shouldn’t be said. Just letting the person know you are there even if you don’t say anything at all is comforting. Sometimes the best thing said is nothing.
I feel very privileged to work at O’Connor and help people in their time of need. If it’s to answer a question, to listen to a story or simply give directions it all matters, because they matter.
Again thank you for the post.
Thank you for your perspective on this topic. I think that it truly is, like you say, a privilege to support others through their grief.
Thank you for preparing my heart, mind and emotions for the losses that will become a part of my life. You confirm, with confidence, all the good things I think about regarding death, grief and loss. Peace Always! Chris
Thank you so much for your comment. I wish you all the best.
Boy, can I relate! Usually, I feel like I do pretty well, but recently messed up while trying to help a grieving family member I am very close to. What started out as a well meaning comment escalated. My timing was terrible, so the message wasn’t perceived as helpful. All I felt I could do was hang in there, not leave the scene and comfort as best I could so she could be assured of my ultimate love and care for her.
Thank you for blogging with us! Anne
It takes a lot of courage to recognize where you might have done things differently if given the chance to go back in time. And, to “hang in there” as you wrote. You’re an inspiration!