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.
I have not come across many resources for instructing people how to support a person who is experiencing grief.
There are times when I feel I must apologize for my fellow human beings. Clients share with me some thoughtless things people have said to them at their time of loss. I believe that people mean well. It's just that most of us don't have a comfortable relationship with strong emotions like grief, anger, or hopelessness. When feelings like this are expressed in our midst, most people will tend to gloss over it or try to shut it down.
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, shouldn't you be over this by now?" "He's moved on. You need to move on too." "Don't feel bad, she'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 or partner through death or divorce, it's likely that you've heard these kinds of statements from others. How helpful are they? Not helpful at all, according to the Grief Recovery Institute.
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 a perfect universe, everyone would be taught how to approach a grieving person with empathy and to think before they do or say something that may unintentionally add to their suffering. I do understand that another person can't "make" you feel anything. Each person has the responsibility for their reactions to people and situations in their lives. Yet, 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....
Six Helpful Things You Can Do/Say if Someone You Know Is Grieving:
- Ask, "How are you doing?" Then listen patiently to the answer without changing the subject or terminating the conversation. Create a safe 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."
- Say that you just found out about their loss. 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 don't know how they feel. Let them tell you about it in their own words.
- Stay away from offering clichés like, "You were lucky to have the time you had," "She's with the angels now," etc. It doesn't help to have you try to rationalize away someone's grief. If you're not sure what to say, go back to tip #2 above.
- "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. You could suggest something 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 offhand, "Let me know if there is anything I can do for you." No one believes you really mean it and that puts the burden on the griever to think of something for you to do. They don't have the energy for that.
- 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.
- Do your best to keep your relationship intact. Avoiding a grieving person because it's uncomfortable for you to be with them is 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's really painful.
People experiencing grief crave feeling heard, seen, understood. 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.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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