What Do I Say When…?
Someone is Grieving
Tension and uncomfortable silence fill the air. Your friend or colleague has just told you that a loved one died…and you struggle for something to say…
As frequently as we may encounter this situation, most everyone has felt awkward at times like this as death and many other significant losses are usually very uncomfortable to discuss. In fact, our culture spends a great deal of time focusing on how to keep death, aging, illness, and many other significant losses at bay. We feel more comfortable discussing the latest face or body lift, the newest medical "cures," or throw ourselves into yet another exercise or diet regime.
Intellectually, we know "death happens," and when it does, we somehow want to extend ourselves in some way to comfort others in their grief; but how?
For any of us who have lost a loved one, or even those who have suffered the loss of a job, gone through a divorce or relationship breakup, or are suffering a health crisis, we feel your pain. This is an awkward time. Rather than have others impart words of "wisdom," most of us appreciate simple responses of sympathy and compassion. This is a time when less is more. Examples of supportive responses could include the following:
• I am so very sorry. That's it. Look them in the eyes. Allow them to take the lead. If they want to talk, let them. If they change the subject, let them.
• Listen without judgement or comment. This is difficult for us. We want to do something to make it all better. But, the fact is, there is a loss that has been suffered. Grieving people need validation, not resolution. If they want to talk, let them set the pace.
• Several examples of supportive and uncomplicated responses are:
- I know this is a very painful time for you.
- I'm sure that (whatever that is/was) has been so very difficult for you.
- I'm glad you've shared this with me.
- I will be thinking of you.
- How can I help further?
• When you do offer to help further, then FOLLOW THROUGH. Stop by their office to check in, send a card, take them groceries, take them out to lunch, or mow their lawn. Ask the grieving person what they need. They may also ask for privacy. Give them space, but also check in again in several days or weeks to let them know they are not alone.
• Everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Allow them theirs.
• Unless asked, try not to share your own stories of loss. The focus is on their story and what they need.
• The worst thing to do is to say or do nothing, unless you're told they don't want to talk and they let you know that your actions are unwelcome.
I admit to having a bias against the common use of the word closure. I don't really like that word. It infers that there is a process of grief that occurs in very linear, predictable stages - after which one moves forward, and the emotional impact of the loss is "officially" over, we have moved on. Instead, I believe that once we experience profound loss, we are forever changed. We can learn to build our lives around the loss, but we are never again the same. This is both a tribute to the person or circumstance we are grieving, as well as a testament to the depth of our attachment. When we care deeply, we tend to feel deeply. This perspective of building our lives around our losses also honors the very convoluted pattern of grief: there are days we're OK, days we are struggling and days we occasionally feel renewed grief, even years beyond the initial loss. This feels awful. But it is NORMAL.
If, weeks and months beyond the initial loss, we are still experiencing fresh grief, such as constant crying, no energy, ruminating thoughts, or appetite and sleep disturbance, then it is time to seek professional help. Strong, capable people seek help. Life happens and even the strongest among us sometimes need to reach out for support.
Vanderbilt's Work/Life Connections - Employee Assistance Program is a no-cost, confidential benefit for all employees, faculty, physicians, and their spouses. If you are wondering if counseling is for you, I encourage you to call 615-936-1327 and schedule an appointment to speak with one of the licensed clinicians on our team. We are here for you.
Janet McCutchen, LPC, CEAP Licensed Professional Counselor
Vanderbilt Work/Life Connections - Employee Assistance Program / Faculty and Physician Wellness