Of all life situations we somehow seem to be least equipped to deal with grief, specially the grief of others. Many of us simply don’t know how to respond when we hear of someone who has just lost a loved one. We either go into shock and denial or respond in a variety of awkward and unhelpful ways. This is perhaps because losing someone we love is one of the deepest fears we have and such news triggers our own insecurities.
My friend lost a family member recently and shared with me that harder than dealing with her own grief was managing the well-intentioned, yet unhelpful and often inappropriate responses of others.
Reflecting on our conversation, I felt called to compile a list of helpful and unhelpful responses when confronted with the news that someone we know has experienced a loss.
1. Don’t ask what happened
The grieving person or family has probably already repeated the story of what happened dozens of times. Don’t ask what happened, how it happened, how it could have been avoided and indulge in a hundred other kinds of meaningless deliberations. This only stirs up their painful memories repeatedly and it is neither kind nor sensitive. If they want to share the story with you, they will do so on their own at the right time without your prodding.
2. Don’t say, “If there is anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask”
This is the most common thing people said to my friend. She said it wasn’t helpful as it put the entire onus of figuring out what to do and who to ask on her, which further added to her sense of anxiety and feeling of being overwhelmed.
3. Don’t ask, “What are you going to do now?”
This question is entirely out of place for someone going through a grieving process. It reminds them of their uncertain future and forces them to confront practical considerations when the real priority is simply to stay present in the heart and allow the train of emotions to move through. Asking questions about what will happen next is actually intrusiveness disguised as care and compassion.
4. Don’t be completely absent / silent
Another inappropriate response is not showing up, not acknowledging when someone has lost a loved one because we feel we don’t know what we can possibly do or say that could be helpful. People do notice that you knew and never called, nor made any effort to connect. The idea that “I wanted to give them space” is no excuse to say or do nothing at all! While it is true that there is possibly nothing you can do to take away their pain entirely, your attentive presence itself can be soothing and quietly reassuring.
Helpful / Supportive Responses
1. Listen and hold the space
Just be around. Be available. Sit with the grieving person and allow them to share whatever they wish to. Often they will have nothing much to say. Still just be there. Let wave after wave of emotion and tears come and go. Sometimes there is nothing but a kind of numbness. Hug or hold their hands as appropriate. Physical touch is incredibly healing. Pure listening without suggestions and advice is incredibly healing. Your undistracted presence is the greatest gift.
2. Share memories of the deceased
It is very meaningful for them to hear how their loved one touched your life in memorable and significant ways. It expands and enriches their narrative of how this life contributed to the larger tapestry of life as a whole. It reduces the sense their loved one died before their time or that everything is meaningless. They begin to realize that more important than the days in our life is the life in our days. Thinking of a person in terms of their qualities also enables us to look beyond the loss of their physical body. Bodies are temporary. Qualities are forever and live on through each of us.
3. Share how you dealt with your grief
If you have ever suffered loss then share your insights on how you dealt with it. Keep it real. Keep it practical. Share with empathy and without expecting that your experience will necessarily be the same as theirs.
4. Do what you can
Instead of saying “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you?”, do what you can! Show up. Help out. Arrange food. Take phone calls. Lend your car. Make logistical decisions. Host visiting family or relatives. Allow the grieving person to “just be” as much as possible and take on as many of their responsibilities as you reasonably can. Actions speak louder than words.
I have used the words “lost” and “loss” many times in this article since that is what most people understand. However a more accurate word is “returned”—because they came into our lives from some place and have now returned to their original source. We cannot lose what is ours, we can only return what was borrowed. This subtle yet significant shift in understanding can enable us to do so with more grit and grace.
These are a few reflections from our conversation. Please share your own insights and observations.
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