Kelly Baltzell, M.A., offers the following thoughts regarding supporting friends and family who have suffered a loss:
What to Say?
Sometimes it is really hard to say just the right words to a person who is grieving. It can tend to be an awkward moment for both parties involved. The person who isn't grieving stumbles around and tries to find something they think won't offend the grieving person. This isn't surprising since we aren't taught how to grieve or to help a grieving person.
At Beyond Indigo many of our grieving members talk about the words that are not helpful. One of our volunteers, Jim, lost his son two years ago and this is what he says about certain pat phrases people have given him and his feelings about these sayings.
- "He (She) is with God!" I am sure that is the case, but they shouldn't be with God; they should be here with us.
- "They are in a better place." Sorry, but there is no better place for them to be than in our loving arms.
- "It was for the best." (I am sure that people with a sick child have heard this one way too many times.) In reality, I think my child should have been healthy with nothing to worry about and should be outside playing and having fun at this minute.
- "We know how you feel." That only works if you have been through my exact situation.
- "It will be all right." I am sorry, but that train left the tracks the day our children left this earth.
- "How are you doing?" I would bet they really don't want to know and if they really do, you had better make sure they stay your friend. The answer "fine" has become my pat answer.
How to Help
So what does a person say that would be appropriate during those awkward moments? What will get your concern and sympathies across to the grieving person? Here are a few things you can say that many people find helpful:
- Repeat what they have said in a different way: For example when a person says words such as, "I am in pain", "I can't stop crying", "I miss him/her so much," you can say "You really sound like you are in pain and hurting terribly." People will feel like they have been heard.
- Call it as you see it: Often we love to ignore the “elephant” sitting in the living room. It is okay to say, "I can see your loss is causing you pain." Or you can say things like, “Are you getting some sleep? Have you thought about seeing a specialist who can keep an eye on you while you are grieving?” Or "I can tell you are missing your loved one."
- Tell stories of the person: People want to talk about their loved one and remember them. Many people enjoy hearing other people's memories of the person. This is especially true after the funeral when the world continues and they are left with their loss.
Words are powerful. Helping a grieving person is a learned skill, and takes practice. But most importantly we can show our sympathy. Focus on genuinely listening to the person and asking questions that reflect you care. This is not the time for 'pat' responses, but honest feelings expressed with care.
Helping a Family that is Grieving
The best gift you can give a family while they are grieving is to listen. You might say "I know that!" Listening can actually be harder to do than it sounds. We are living in society today where we are conditioned to the 10-second sound bite. We focus for a moment and then turn our attention elsewhere.
People who come to Beyond Indigo often tell me that no one will listen to them. They do not feel heard. Quickly they learn to say "I'm fine" because "I'm fine" doesn't make the listener uncomfortable. Grieving people want to tell their story. They want to be heard.
How does one become an effective listener?
- Silence: Be okay with silence. Don’t be in a rush to fill in the empty spaces while people are giving you their story. Just be patient and listen.
- Wait: It is often tempting when people are struggling to assimilate new information to give too much advice too quickly. Allow some space between advice/information giving to give the family member a chance to voice their desires and needs.
- Focus on the individual: In today's world we are constantly being bombarded with stimulation overload. You might have to consciously remind yourself to put down the pen, fold your hands on your lap, use direct eye contact and relax.
- Use key words: Let the family member know they are heard by saying, "I hear you," or "What I hear you saying is…," or even ask them "Do you feel like you have been heard?"
- Body language: A grieving person may not be consciously aware of your body language but it is conveyed nonetheless. Sitting with your arms crossed, leaning far back in your chair, having your desk between you and the family member or a large table could convey the message that there is distance between you. This can send the message that you are not a good listener.
- Perception: Since grieving people are extra sensitive, they often can tell if you are actively engaged in listening to them or if you are just being "nice." When dealing with a grieving person it is always a good idea to check your frame of mind to see if you are in a receiving mode or just trying to be polite.
The simple act of listening to a grieving family member brings much comfort. You may also want to encourage the individual to take advantage of local resources that are specifically geared to listening to grieving individuals such as local therapists, support groups, or message boards on the internet like the one located at www.grieving.com
Kelly is CEO of Beyond Indigo, to learn more, go to: www.grieving.com