Most of us are not well practiced at talking with people who have lost a loved one. It is a skill set not well taught. In fact our collective unwillingness to talk about death retards our ability to develop loving and supportive communication skills. Typically we fumble and bumble our way through these awkward times.
Our natural inclination is to want to help out and make those grieving feel better. Out of our love for them we want their pain to stop. Many times our hearts are in the right place our minds and mouths though are somewhere else.
In chatting with people who have experienced many comments at end of life ceremonies I have put together a list of phrases that just don’t work. The phrases were all well intended and yet how they impacted the one grieving was far from the original aim.
Review the phrases and especially the reframed phrases that may convey more clearly what you really intended.
The phrase – “I know how you feel.”
The underlying intention is to let the person grieving know that they are not alone and that you have experienced grief too. The speaker is using this phrase to build understanding and common ground so the one mourning doesn’t feel alone in their grief. They may also be implying that it is okay if you share more of your grief with me if you wish. The intentions are loving and honorable.
However the phrasing is poor and results in negative reactions from the very one you are trying to console. “No you don’t know how I feel!” is a common response and the truth is they are right we cannot know how they feel at all. We can assume we do because we may have gone through our own loss of a loved one. Yet, our grief journey was uniquely our own unlike anyone else’s, so theirs will be uniquely their own too – similar in many ways and yet so personally different.
How would you let someone know that you care, have empathy for what they are going through and want to support them? Here are several sentences that would do just that.
“I have no idea what it must be like for you. I lost my husband so I have some experience with grief. I am really willing to offer you an ear or a shoulder if you need it.”
This approach lets the one grieving know several things without laying any judgments or trips. It acknowledges that the person you are consoling has their own process, that you have had a loss too so you know something about grief, and that you are ready and willing to be there for them at their request.
“I am guessing this is a challenging time for you and I want you to know that I lost my daughter last year so I have some idea about what it could be like for you. I’d be happy to join you for a coffee and talk about it all if you would like that kind of support.”
This approach lets the grieving friend or family member know that you have some idea about grief and you are there for them if they were to call. It is important to remember that the person you are speaking with is not broken and doesn’t need to be fixed. You are letting them know you are willing to support them by listening and understanding.
The Phrase – This too will pass.
The person speaking this phrase is really intending to let you know that the storm of grief will come and go and ultimate the intensity will diminish and life will stabilize.
In the moment to the one grieving it feels like this endless, bottomless well of grief. It doesn’t feel like it will pass at all and to be frank hearing someone say that is more upsetting than supportive. It tends to create reactivity and distance.
How are you doing?
This simple question opens the door for the one you are supporting. It doesn’t tell them anything about how they should feel or what they should do. It gives them the chance to speak and be heard.
The phrase – If you need anything, just call.
The reason people say this is to offer a helping hand, to lighten the burden. Sometimes the person speaking is offering energetic support and doesn’t realize how important hands on support can be to a person experiencing grief.
If the one grieving does take the risk and ask for help, honor your word and when and where possible do give of your time and effort. There is nothing worse for someone living through grief to reach out for help and then be ‘let down.’ The impact when you do help is untold thanks and relief.
I would be happy to offer you an evening or two of baby-sitting so you can have some personal space.
Make your offer of help specific and straightforward. Some people experiencing grief feel totally overwhelmed by all of life’s details and can even begin to sift through all the ways they do need help, so they don’t reach out. Keeping your offer of support clear, concise and doable is supportive.
The Phrase – At least you have other children.
The intention here is to make the woman experiencing the loss feel better and to appreciate the fact she does have other children to love and care for.
A death is a death no matter how you slice it. To attempt to make a woman who has lost an unborn baby feel better does not work at all. It denies her already existing love and relationship with the child growing in her body. It is offensive to her and cause even more pain and upset.
Tell me more about how you are doing.
The sentence opens up the opportunity for the woman suffering the loss to talk with you. Listening to her and understanding her grief is helpful and much more supportive than trying to make her feel better. Giving her the space to talk with you about how she is really doing is a gift.
The Phrase – They are in a much better place.
When some one uses this phrase they are setting out to ease the worry of those surviving a loved ones’ death; to reassure them that their family member or friend is alright.
The one(s) grieving would likely have a reaction something like, “How do you know?” or “No, here is a much better place!” There are many other reactions to this sentence but you get the drift, it doesn’t work because we just don’t know that to be true. We may believe it to be true and that is different. Typically when we try to make someone feel better by offering them a belief we create reactivity in the one we are attempting to help.
Tell me a bit more about how you miss your partner.
Instead of getting them to feel better this sentence sets out to help them express how they are really feeling. By approaching it this was and encouraging them to express their feelings you are actually being much more helpful.
The Phrase – Do you really think it is good for your kids to be here?
People care for children and sometimes they may worry about how children will handle big changes like a move or death. Many people do not understand about how children grieve and think they need to protect them from death and grief.
It tends to separate children from the family process of grief and in doing so delays their natural grief journey. It may also cause children to become frightened of death and to see it as something to be fearful of.
How are the children doing?
Asking from a place of being curious will be very helpful to the person you are talking with. It will open the door for them to speak openly about their children and how the kids are doing with it all.