How to talk to the grieving
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
One thing I’ve learnt more about since starting The Silent Why podcast, is that not everyone feels as comfortable as I do talking to people who have been through, or are going through, loss or grief.
I’ve always loved words and in particular the right ones in the right place at the right time. A film, or a book, finishing on just the right sentence is like the coming together of perfect harmonies for me. But the wrong words, at the wrong time, to the wrong person, are like nails on a blackboard!
We've all been there, you're happily chatting away, meeting new people and then someone asks a question of someone else and the answer creates an awkward silence because they just told you their child died, or they're living with terminal cancer, or they can't have children, or their husband was murdered.
Early on I was fascinated by this sort of situation, that literally seemed to take the words out of people’s mouths. Where people just didn’t know what to say. So I wanted to have those words, to know what those words should be. Those tricksy words that not everyone could find, but held so much power in tough situations.
And I understand it, it’s not easy, I’ve had to think hard and practise it over the years.
A small side note worth mentioning; hard as it is for some to talk to people who are grieving, you also have to recognise not all grievers are easy to talk to anyway. So not all the blame is those not grieving. I’ve seen people alienate themselves in their loss by how they respond to others, and there’s a high chance the reason some people run away from a bereaved person is because they’ve been burnt before.
As the famous saying goes, that no one quite knew who said it, but it’s been dated back to 1959 when mentioned by Charles Eads:
Hurt people hurt people.
With my own childlessness I’ve been on the other end of careless words, but I’ve also had a choice in my response.
I will reiterate it’s not easy. But what is, when it comes to human relations? And there are simple things you can do or say to let grievers know you care, even if you’re lost for the words you’d like to have available.
I guess you could be thinking, why bother? Why do I need to make their life easier? I have my own stuff to go through. Well, since we all go through loss and bereavement eventually, one day it’ll be you on the other side of an awkward face and no words, and if you believe that you reap what you sow at all, well, I think this one is worth the effort. It’s important we get better at talking to people who are going through loss. I get that some of you don't want to think about people dying and getting ill, but to continue that thought through to ignoring those that are going through it, because it causes you pain - that’s not ok. And it’s not kind. And if there’s anything I’ve learnt from the sitcom, Derek, it’s that kindness is key. And free!
And I hate to break it to you, but you don't avoid loss and grief by not looking at it, or avoiding those going through it, you only make it worse for the person going through the situation you fear, which just makes the whole thing about you, and I have a feeling that’s not exactly how you’d want life to be if the big, ugly, sad shoe was on the your foot.
Now I’m mostly talking here about meeting people who are fairly fresh in their grief or loss, but the tips are useful for those further down the grief road as well.
I’ll start by looking at some of the things that aren’t helpful to say. And don’t beat yourself up if you’ve heard these words leave your mouth, we’re all learning.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
Don't say 'at least…' One of the most common phrases you hear talked about in loss circles, that’s not at all helpful, is any sentence that starts with ‘at least…’ So strike those words straight out of your vocabulary. ‘At least he had a long life’ ‘At least you can get pregnant’ ‘At least you don’t have to waste money on contraceptive' ‘At least you have a nice house and car’ ‘At least she didn’t suffer' ‘At least you have other children’ ‘At least you’ve got a loving husband alongside you' ‘At least you haven’t got a grieving husband to take care of.’ No good will come from these words, it brings zero comfort in grief to try and look at a bright side.
Don't use comparisons Don’t compare their situation with another one. If someone lost a baby recently, don’t tell them about a friend who also lost their baby or tell them about your own losses. Although I’m going to add an ‘unless’ here. Unless, you are doing it to share something helpful and show you might have experience in this area, for example; ‘I know what you’re going through, when I lost my baby, all I did was sit on the floor and cry, but that’s ok, and I’m here if you need anything or just want to talk.’ Or ‘My sister lost her baby at a similar age and told me someone doing her shopping was a huge help, is there anything like that I can do for you?’ These aren’t comparisons, but more a way of showing you want to help from a place of understanding.
Don't make assumptions Don’t make assumptions on how they’re feeling, it tends to just push your own thoughts and feelings their way and can be confusing or harmful. ‘You must be feeling so scared and alone in that big house’ Not only might this highlight the worst thing they’re going through, it might not be how they feel, what if this aspect of life has actually not crossed their mind but now you’re implanting it there that they should feel this way? Same goes for any assumption. ‘You must be so tired’ ‘You must really miss him’ ‘You’ll probably never get over her’ ‘I bet you can’t even cook a meal right now’ If you get this wrong and they are actually doing well with meals, they can be left feeling bad about their progress. Same goes for saying ‘I know exactly how you feel’ - unless you really do.
Don't tell them they're strong or coping well Recently one of our guests, Alina (Episode 018: Loss of a family) said she didn’t like being told she was strong. This was a new one to me, but when she mentioned why, it made perfect sense and I actually identified with it. It was because she had no choice. Some of us are the sort of people who just get on with life, whatever happens we find a way to do things and we are always trying to do it well, even if it’s grieving. So you feel like you have no choice but to be strong, because falling apart and not being strong doesn’t come naturally to you. It’s a bit like telling someone they’re coping well. If someone tells me I coped well with something, I want to say, 'What alternative is there?' I find it hard to say the words ‘I’m not coping’, let alone even know how to show it.
Don’t try to fix things You don’t need to fix a person’s pain. So don’t reach for things to try and make it seem good, or look for reasons it happened. ‘It was what’s best for her’ ‘He’s at peace now’ ‘It could have been worse if…’ ‘I know exactly what you should do…’ Ultimately you’re often trying to make it better in your own mind, not trying to help the person grieving.
Don't tell them they will heal and get over it You have no idea how their grief journey will be, and most griefs are never ‘got over’, they’re just incorporated into the person’s life (see my previous blog: Hello Darkness, My New Friend). And ‘getting over it’ is actually the last thing fresh grievers want to do anyway, because that takes them further away from what they’ve lost. So steer clear of, 'Time will heal' 'One day it'll be a distant memory' ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine eventually’
Don't put a timeline on it It’s not helpful to put limitations on people’s grief. ‘It took me a year to get over my sister dying’ ‘I never got over the death of my mother’ Is not helpful to someone else’s grief. If they share that with you and you can identify with that, then it’s fine to agree and chat further, but don’t put an expectation out there for them to live with.
Be careful with religious platitudes For starters, it’s dangerous to assume what someone believes, but even if you know, statements like, ‘It was God’s will’ ‘She’s in a better place now’ rarely bring comfort when you’d really much rather there were here on earth with you, and not in a better place anyway. Faith has its place and is a comfort to many, but you need to have a good relationship with a person before encroaching on this area, and even then, if it’s not how they’re feeling at that moment it can just make them feel like they're lacking faith they should have.
Don’t get needy All to often I hear of situations where someone grieving tells someone else about their loss, and that person gets upset. Especially if it involves a child dying. Anyone who's grieving shouldn’t have to be mopping up your tears because you get upset hearing about it. Sometimes it will bring tears as you feel the pain of the person you’re talking to, but there’s a way to show your empathy without them needing to supply you with their precious tissues. Put on your big girl pants and just be there for them.
There’s one more that I’ve saved to the end, because it’s been the one that’s come up the most in all our interviews. It’s a statement that has surprised a few of our listeners, because they believed it was a safe place to go when it came to drawing alongside the bereaved and those in loss, but it turns out, it has quite the opposite effect. ‘I can’t imagine’ It’s been especially mentioned by those whose children have died or who have sick children they’re caring for. They’ve told us these words put distance between you and the person you’re trying to comfort, and if gives the impression that rather than you not being able to imagine their situation, it’s more likely you’re choosing not to. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to work out how it came about. I've even found ‘I can’t imagine’ in lists of helpful things to say to widows. I think it dates back to when grievers were probably faced with sentences like; ‘I know what you’re going through’ ‘I can imagine it must be hard’ ‘I understand’ However, as we got less polite and more honest in society, it only took a few mourners to reply with ‘Do you? Have you actually been through it?!’ Before people to start to thinking, ‘No, I haven’t been through it, so I can’t imagine what it’s like, because I haven’t been there.’ So I think the response turned to; ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through’ And people believed that was an acknowledgement of how hard the situation must be. Starting the thought process of - if you haven't been there, or been through it, then you don't know. I personally don't subscribe to this, many people are capable of empathy at this level, even if it's only a minority. However, whatever it's origin, 'I can't imagine' has had the opposite effect on people grieving and needs to be carefully used. I don’t believe the whole sentiment needs to be thrown out, because someone saying to me, ‘I can’t imagine what it’s like to not have children, help me learn' ‘I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you around nieces and nephews for you, is there anyway I can help?’ is actually appreciated, but you just need to use it as a way of connecting and not isolating, and that depends on the words that follow it.
So, after all that you’re probably thinking; 'Well, thanks for that, what on earth is there left to say?! You’ve made it so much worse!!'
Do not fear. I’m not going to leave you hanging there with your mouth open. I’ve also got some top tips for being the best version of you around those that are grieving.
With this list you’ll probably notice that it’s not actually about words. In this space, actions speak louder than words.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Remove yourself from the equation First thing I can tell you - it’s not about you! It’s about them. There’s probably little you can do to make them feel worse (unless you say something stupid or hurtful, but that's why you're here, so you won't do that) so although talking about this subject might feel hard for you, it’s probably not for them. They’ve been through the worst bit already, don’t flatter yourself by thinking you mentioning it is a bad move. Most people want to talk about it. If it’s a child that’s bereaved it helps them to talk, and sometimes adults and children find it easier to chat to someone that’s not family, so don’t assume they’ll only want to talk about it with those very close to them either.
Be an active listener Active listening means actually listening. Not being distracted by your phone, or a bird, or the window, or pretending you’re there with the odd 'uh huh'. Ask questions about what they're saying, to understand more, and create space for them to share. Ask about who they lost, why they chose the baby’s name, favourite memories with that person, what the treatment is feeling like. Especially with bereaved parents, like any other parent, they want to talk about their child. Don't limit or correct them when listening, just be there, and if you can’t think of anything to say, just sit with them. Take your knitting.
Be normal As far as you can be normal, don’t be a deranged version of yourself that they don’t know what to do with. If you know them well and want to ask questions about how they are, then do that. If you don’t know them and that’s inappropriate then be guided by them, but it’s ok to laugh and smile if they make a joke. They don’t want to be surrounded by weirdos acting differently, they friends, preferably acting normal. Be honest about how you’re feeling, but don’t burden them with it. If you’re scared, or sad, share it with them, but not for them to deal with, just as a way of showing them you’re in it alongside them.
Share a memory If someone has died there’s a general assumption that you shouldn’t mention them, but most people want to talk about their child, husband, wife, mother, grandma, uncle, pet. They want to share those stories about them. I remember being very sad after our family dog died, when I was in my early teens I suppose, I went to my Grandma’s house when my mum took the dog to be put to sleep, and we sat and chatted about all the great memories and stories we had of him. It really stuck in my mind as a time of smiling when it was hard.
Give them the space they need to be whatever and however they need to be People in loss don’t often want to engage in big, long conversations about politics and the weather like they might normally, but that doesn’t mean you have to fill the space with your babble and problems. Be patient and be with them, give them space to talk if they want to, but also space to just sit and be quiet with you too. They might just want the company. If you’re not sure, ask them. ‘Do you want to talk, or would you like me to just sit here with you?’ Reassure them that however they’re feeling right now is ok with you, maybe recognise it’s hard when you’re grieving to even know what you want at all, and that’s fine too. Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing. Just be there, in person, at the end of the phone, on Whatsapp at midnight, sending a letter, checking in, doing the ironing. And as they come out of the shock stage, offer to join them in whatever they want to do, maybe they want to go to the pub, maybe they want to visit somewhere special, maybe they want to go to the shooting range or skydiving - let them do what they want to do. Unless it’s just plain dangerous of course!
Stay in touch beyond the initial grief Message or call them to tell them you’re thinking of them. Send them cards full of memories of the person they’ve lost. If they like hugs from you normally, give them a hug, stay physically in touch, they might need that more than ever. Obviously, if you don’t know this person and have never hugged them, don’t start now without asking! And if you’re feeling the urge, just say, ‘I really want to give you a hug, would that be ok?’ They can always say no. Invite them out for coffee, if they say not yet, remember and ask again in a month or so. Think of the times people are less likely to be in touch and fill those gaps. After a funeral, when the flowers stop arriving and life goes back to normal for everyone else, get in touch a couple of months afterwards to see how they are.
Offer help Offer to help, but the key here is to be specific and to mean it. Saying, ‘If there’s anything I can to do help…’ is kind but not specifically helpful. It puts the burden on them to come up with something and ask it of you, when it might not be something you can do, or want to do. Early on offer to help with funeral arrangements, paperwork, flowers, food, clear up after the funeral, etc, later on, if you like cooking, ask them if you could bring them round a meal, if you’re a cleaning ninja, tell them you love cleaning and would love to come and help them. Ask who is providing their meals, who is cleaning their house, who is doing their shopping? If they don’t have an answer of who’s doing it, offer to fill that gap. If they’re ill, ask if they want company, if they’re going through treatments, or a child or loved one is, offer to go to appointments, would they like a lift to save the stress of parking, be specific. Ask what they’re thinking of doing over the coming week/month, find ways you can offer to help. If they say no, that’s fine, but at least they know there are people offering. If you must speak, or you’re meeting someone for the first time and just found out about their loss, then here’s my advice...
Saying sorry This is one I nearly got put under the ‘what not to say’ list, because you often hear people say, ‘I’m sorry your dad died’ on TV and they’re met with a sarcastic ‘Why? Not your fault is it?!’ But I don’t think the words ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this’ are usually meant as an apology for the situation, they’re meant as a way of expressing that you are sad they are having to endure this pain and loss. There are two definitions to the word sorry, one means regret, but the other one is ‘feeling sad or distressed through sympathy with someone else's misfortune.’ It’s about feeling sorrow. But if you’re unsure about using these words, just clarify why you’re sorry by adding what you’re sorry about, and say it in a way that’s not an apology: ‘I’m so sorry things are hard for you right now’ ‘I’m so sorry this has happened to you.’
Choose your words carefully Follow their lead. If the person talking to you is saying their baby died, don’t pussyfoot around the expressions of ‘passed away’, ‘moved on’ etc if they’re using the word ‘died’, use it . Use the same language, even if it’s shocking to you, trust me, what they’ve been through is far more shocking to them. If they use a lot of detail and want to explain it all, then they’re probably fine with you asking more questions, take their cue that they want to talk about it. If they don’t, they might not want to, so don’t ask questions about details on the loss, but ask how they are instead. My understanding is that it’s not about the initial words, but more about what you follow them up with. For example; ‘I’m sorry’ sounds like an apology, but ‘I’m so sorry you are having to go through all this pain’ is an acknowledgement of what they are facing. The same with ‘I can’t imagine’, an off-the-cuff, ‘I just can’t even imagine’ distances you, but ‘I can’t imagine all you must be facing right now, but I’d love to meet up and find out how you are doing’ is the voice of someone trying to understand. And if all else fails, simply being honest and saying, ‘I don’t know what to say or what you need right now, but I’m here for you in any way you need me,’ is better than the wrong thing or no contact at all.
What CAN you say Ok, so there’s a lot of overwhelming information there, a small insight to my brain and what runs through it when I’m with someone who’s faced loss. And you’re probably like, ‘Argh! Just give me one flippin’ sentence I can say to always get it right!’ Ok, ok. Well bear in mind, you can’t always get it right because it depends on who you’re with, what they’ve been through, what they’ve lost, what they’re grieving, what your relationship is with them, whether you just met or grew up with them etc etc.
[You might want to listen to this next bit to hear how I’m saying these things, as it's not easy to explain in writing. You can do that here: My Why: How to talk to the grieving, from the 18mins mark.]
If you want a short sentence that always works, then I would say you can’t go far wrong with three very simple words; ‘How are you?’
But it’s not a simple, ‘How you doing?’ It’s a heart felt, look into their eyes, mean it with everything you have, ‘And how are you?’ or ‘How are you doing? Is there anything I can help you with?’
It’s also not ‘How does that feel?’ which has a feel of separating you off from them. Whether you’re talking to someone going through chemo, whether you’re at a grave chatting to the widow, whether you just got introduced to someone who lost a baby, whether your best friend’s dad just died, you can’t go wrong with finding out how they are doing in themselves. But it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. (Again, if you’re reading this and not sure, you might want to listen to the audio in the link above to get a feel for those questions.)
There’s a big difference between ‘How you doing now?’ and ‘How are you feeling?’ And if you get met with the ‘I’m awful’ honest response, or sarcasm, don’t be scared of that, just acknowledge it in your response; ‘That must be really hard. I’m genuinely sorry you’re facing that right now.’
Just remember, if you genuinely care, and have their best interests at heart, you can rarely get it wrong, people will see you’re trying and most people will appreciate you talking to them at all, because believe it or not, a lot of people will be avoiding them completely.
Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless. Mother Teresa