Sunday, August 18, 2013

Grief - What Do We Say to One Who is Grieving?

This morning (with my yummy fully caffeinated coffee to bolster me) I will boldly lay down a few words in discussion of one of those emotionally charged, so-uncomfortable-to-discuss, but oh-so-needed-to-inform topics, the knowledge of which seems to carry a growing weight and value in our hearts and our Country today.  

And what in the world do we say to someone who is grieving?    

As a mother who has lost a child in a tragic school bus accident when he was just 9 years old, I have wandered around through deep, engulfing grief.  I have experienced the comfort of sincere, heart-felt words of sympathy, as well as insensitive, though well meant words that really hurt.  

These days I hear the voice of the caring friend, family member, or even the internet comment giver, deeply desiring to leave words of comfort, but stumbling awkwardly, not knowing what to say.  In my heart I know grief is a topic that will never grow old, and those of us who have personally waded through it, if able, can share their words of wisdom in guiding others more comfortably through.  Below, I have inserted an article I wrote from my experience on what to say and what not to say to someone grieving.  I hope you find it helpful.

With a full heart,

            Have you ever found yourself struggling to say the right thing to someone who has lost a loved one?  Maybe you were afraid your words might make them feel worse or make them cry?  Rest assured, you are not alone.  Expressing your sympathy to someone who is grieving can be awkward and uncomfortable.  With a few simple guidelines, however, thoughtful words of sympathy can be sincerely expressed.
            To begin, we must first realize that there is nothing we can say or do that will make a bereaved person feel better or hurt less.  Grief is not merely an emotion we feel, nor is it something we simply get over.  Rather, the loss of a loved one is an ever present emptiness we somehow learn to live with.  Consider Sigmund Freud’s insightful words: 

"We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else." 

            In my experience, Freud’s words proved true indeed.  In grieving the loss of my little boy to a tragic school bus accident when he was only nine, there were no words or actions which could ease the gaping wound in my heart.  However, in the midst of my deepest mourning, a sincere hug and “I am so sorry for your loss”, or “I am praying for you” were very comforting.  
            Listed below is a helpful guideline focused on words frequently said to the bereaved which I found to be either comforting and helpful, or confusing and hurtful.

Things You Might Say to Someone Who is Grieving
If you are comfortable with the grieving person, then make eye contact, touch them, take his or her hand or give a sincere hug as you say:
  • “My condolences to you”, “I am so sorry for your loss”, “I am so sorry your son died.”
If you don’t know the person well, or are afraid you might break down and make their pain worse, try to be simple, open and sincere when you say,
  • “I don’t know what to say, but please know how sorry I am that your _______ died.”  “Please know I care.”  
  • “I can’t imagine what you are feeling.”  “(Name of deceased) was a wonderful person.  He/She will be deeply missed.”  It is important to validate the loved one’s life, as well as the grief felt in the loss of that loved one’s life.
Beyond What To Say: What to Do
  • Time permitting; relate a fond memory of the loved one, using the loved one’s name. 
  • Listen intently as the grieving person talks.  The grieving heart hungers for words of the loved one and rejoices in telling personal memories. 
  • Be sensitive to his or her faith.  This is not the time for theological arguments.  Do tell them you will be praying for them if you genuinely intend to. Knowing that others were praying for me and my family was great comfort to us.
  • Offer to perform specific tasks for them such as providing groceries or meals, running errands, doing household chores, returning messages, helping make arrangements, etc.   Especially during the first few weeks, simple tasks can be overwhelming to the bereaved.

Things NOT  to Say to Someone Who is Grieving
  • “Don’t cry.”  No matter how uncomfortable or sad their crying makes you feel, it is only through their thousands of tears that healing begins.  It is okay to gently cry along with them.
  • I know how you feel.”  Even if you have suffered a similar loss, it is better simply to say, “I know the pain of loosing a child, husband, wife, etc.”  If asked, then relate your story.  Hearing someone else’s story of loss helped me to not feel so alone in my suffering; but only when I was ready to hear it. 
  • “He’s in a better place now.” or “It was God’s will.” or “She’s better off now.” or “God must have needed another angel.”  These words make the bereaved feel as if there should be no reason to grieve.  I needed my grief – to me, it was all I had left of my son, and I needed to envelope myself in it until I was emotionally able to say goodbye to him.
  • “It’s ok, you can have more children.” or “You’re young, you can learn to love again,” or “It’s good that you were too young to understand.”  These are cruel words that can strip away the importance that the loved one held.   Having another child can never replace the one lost.  And no matter your age, a loss remains a loss, for the rest of your life.
  • “Get over it.” or “Get a grip.” or “It’s time to get on with your life.”  For the bereaved, life has stopped.  Those words will only make them feel guilty, fearful, and angry.

           When contemplating words of sympathy to the bereaved, please understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.  There is no set timetable or pattern within the stages of grief, which are: shock and numbness, denial, guilt, pain and deep sorrow, anger, depression, and acceptance.  Each of these stages is normal and essential to healing, and the order and duration of each will vary.  Any stage may be visited many times during the grieving process.   
            In reflection of losing her brother and later her father, my daughter Tiffany stated, Sometimes it wasn't so much about what they said, it was about them being there, supporting me, letting me talk.  Sometimes I just wanted someone to sit with me.”  Her words sum it up perfectly.  If you find yourself at a loss for words, remember - a human touch, soft eye contact, and just being there to listen will always be the right comfort. 

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