by BETHANY GODWIN
Do you remember your first experiences with witnessing grief? I find it interesting that for so many, those moments are often filled with so much anxiety and angst, they often fumble with their words or avoid the situation altogether.
I remember as a child some of my first experiences with attending a funeral for someone in the community and looking for guidance on what to say or not to say. There often is an anticipation of being in the presence of heightened emotions and feeling helpless when interacting with those grieving. Many people will develop common responses for how they think they should respond from the media, parents, or their own experiences. Unfortunately, this isn’t a topic that we openly talk about often. As a therapist and an experienced griever myself, I have a few thoughts to share on how to respond to grieving people.
Acknowledge their grief.
It is not uncommon for people to be afraid of mentioning someone’s recent loss or their loved one to them, because they’re afraid it will make them sad or ruin their day. As a mental health professional and a griever myself, I can assure you that mentioning their deceased loved one at that moment is not shocking news to them. Often grievers are already thinking of their loved one on some level but may be holding back from sharing for fear of the supporter’s inability to handle their grief at that moment. When you as a supporter mention their loved one or their grief, you are likely providing them relief to talk about it or helping them feel seen and heard by acknowledging what they’re going through.
Check your urges.
It is very important that we acknowledge and accept that we cannot take away someone’s pain or grief they are experiencing. I get it – it’s uncomfortable to see someone we know experiencing raw, emotional pain. We want to say or do the one thing that will relieve them, otherwise, we are left to sit with the feeling of helplessness, which doesn’t feel great. Grief is a process we have to go through ourselves at our own pace; when someone attempts to fast-forward us through our grief it can be more harmful than helpful.
Statements to avoid.
I will admit, years before I understood grief, I have even used a few of these statements thinking it was helpful. When we say things like, “Well, at least we know they lived a good life,” or “At least they’re not in pain anymore,” or “They wouldn’t want you to be sad,” we’re minimizing the griever’s pain. Those statements may be true, however, it does not make the grief any easier just because we said it. Two things can be true at the same time, their loved one may have lived a good life AND they can be sad their life ended.
It’s easy to recite the common line, “I’m sorry for your loss.” We are indeed sorry, however, this response is often so repeated that it can feel very empty to the griever. Using their loved one’s name or their role when speaking those grievances helps affirm the person’s life. For example, “I’m so sorry about Barbara” or “I’m sorry to hear your mother passed away.” There is often a fear in people who grieve that their loved one’s identity becomes erased now that they are deceased; using their name reaffirms they were an individual. It can also be helpful to share a memory of their loved one if you knew them, or how their life impacted you. This again, reaffirms their loved one mattered, and will continue to.
Simply reach out.
Supporting someone who is grieving is an experience we all will have at some point in our lives, so learning about how to respond is important. Grief can be a lonely experience – getting past the uncomfortable feelings you might have could be impactful in someone’s life. I’d like to encourage you to simply reach out today to someone you know that has experienced a loss. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture to let them know you’re thinking of them. Your genuine expression of care could make a big difference in their grief journey.