This is probably the most overwhelming part for a supporter. Are there really any words to share with someone who is suffering from the loss of a loved one? Of course, we can come up with what we think are comforting words, but the majority of us fumble on what to say and how to embrace a friend or family member who is in pain. Why is it so hard? Because the person you are trying to comfort isn’t ready to be comforted by words which, more often than not, leads to mis-interpretation, frustration, and sometimes more hurt.
Our natural inclination is to help “fix” the person who is suffering so we try to apply logic to the situation rather than understanding that we need to look at the situation from a purely emotional state just like the griever. I recently saw a poem on Facebook that inspired me to tackle the question, “what do we say to someone suffering a loss?”
Don’t say they’re in a better place, please don’t even start.
Don’t say that it was just their time when it’s breaking my heart.
Don’t tell me many die young or that their life was long.
Don’t say that there’s a reason or they’re back where they belong.
Don’t say that God needed them more or I know just how you feel.
Don’t give me any reasons when you’re not at the wheel.
Don’t tell me I’ll get over it or any other thesis.
All I know right here and now my heart’s shattered to pieces.
You don’t need to say a thing there is nothing you can do.
Just knowing that you’re here for me when I’ve most needed you.
—–Toni Kane (all-greatquotes.com)
Thank you, Toni Kane, for putting a pen to paper (keyboard to computer) to what most grievers want to say to supporters yet can’t find the appropriate words to articulate what they are thinking. From the griever’s point of view, all of the typical clichés meant to put them at ease just incite visceral frustration because isn’t there no better place than being here in this realm with family and friends? All grievers need time to be sad, absorb the loss and determine how to get their feet back on the ground. All of that takes time, patience, understanding and comfort from friends, family and the griever’s community.
At a recent presentation of Living with Loss, One Day at a Time a gentleman in the audience asked my advice of how to help his wife who recently lost her 40 year-old sister. He was saddened by her lack of enthusiasm, shortness in responses and detachment from her children. He wanted his “wife back,” but more so he did not want to see her suffer. My answer was straightforward – he will have her “back” when she is emotionally ready to be back. While this wasn’t the quick-fix answer, he was probably hoping for, at least it provides some frame of reference. In the meantime, he will have to be very patient, understanding and supportive. How do you do that when you’re trying desperately to find a smile? Again, patience is key. There is no need to dive into dinner parties with others where the small talk can push a griever over the edge. More so than words, a constant stream of small ‘touches’ that don’t require any reciprocation is the most appreciated and restorative encouragement you can provide.
Here are a few ideas:
- Walk around the block holding hands allowing the feeling of connection and warmth.
- Take them for a relaxing massage and be there to drive them home so she can prolong the relaxation.
- Cook them their favorite meal, serve it and clean-up.
- Listen to what they have to say and be sympathetic without trying to “fix” or interpret.
- Be empathetic not sympathetic.
After spending years facilitating all types of grief groups I have collected cliché’s of grief that often offend a griever. As you approach grievers consider some advice from Day 16 of Living with Loss, One Day at a Time and remind yourself that you are trying to be supportive of their emotions and not logically “fixing” the situation. Or even think of it this way: you are a guide, not a teacher. Set them up for success by guiding them back to a happier state of mind, instead of telling them what you wish they would feel now.
Clichés of Grief
Some of us experience hurtful comments from friends and family as they search for ways to help ease our pain. The remarks are usually said with the best of intentions but are misunderstood by the griever as insensitive.
|Cliché||Initial reaction||What they meant|
|Time will heal.||Do we really ever heal, or does time soften the pain?||You must feel as though the pain will never end.|
|You are young, you can have more children.||Even if I do, a new child will not replace the one I lost.||You must really be sad; let me hug you again.|
|Call me if I can help.||Most likely I won’t.||I would like to come by tomorrow and …|
|He is in a better place.||No, he isn’t. The better place is sitting next to me.||It isn’t fair, is it?|
|You are holding up so well.||Right? Maybe on the outside.||I am available to visit with you. Can I call you tomorrow?|
|It is time to move on!||Move on from what?||Take the time you need, I just miss your smile.|
People are not mean-spirited; they just don’t know what to say. As a griever, please try to filter out the “hurtful” gestures and interpret them as love and caring. As you learn what works for you, pass along to the next group of people who are supporting their loved ones of what works and what doesn’t work.
Rachel Kodanaz is an author, speaker and coach who provides encouragement to those who are suffering a loss or setback. She is the author of Living with Loss, One Day at a Time and Grief in the Workplace: A comprehensive guide for being prepared. Rachel supports companies who have experienced a loss of an employee or supporting grieving employees as they return to work after a significant loss.