Crucial Conversations

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Coping with the Loss of a Loved One

Dos and Don’ts of Comforting Others

When a friend’s loved one passes away, what is the best way to console him or her without saying something that further compounds the pain?

I asked our Crucial Skills Newsletter readers to share their perspective. I read through pages and pages of their wise and heartfelt comments, and I’d like to share a summary of the recurring insights.

In doing so, I’d like to touch on three main questions:

  • What do people want when they’re grieving?
  • What don’t they want?
  • What should you do when people say or do things that don’t help?

1. What do people want when they’re grieving? They want your heart, not your brain.
Too many times, we avoid those in pain because we aren’t sure what to say. We think we need soothing poetry laced with wisdom of the ages to spill from our mouths in order to soothe their pain. Don’t wait for inspired words, just make contact, grieve alongside them, and share the moment.

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Here are a few comments from people who have lost a loved one:

  • Don’t avoid the grieving person because you don’t know what to say. “I’m sorry for your loss” is enough. Your mere presence is enough.
  • I don’t remember anyone telling me it was okay to feel sad or lost, or to hate what breast cancer did to my mom’s little body. It would have helped if someone allowed me to grieve.
  • Simply asking how he or she is doing and saying “I care” goes a long way. When my husband died fourteen years ago, it was helpful to me when friends called and left messages to “check in on me.” I would come home from work each night and just listen to the love and concern of dear friends. I felt no need to call back; I just listened.

When someone I love is going through shock and pain from some precipitating event (like death, job loss, etc.), I put a reminder on my schedule two weeks, two months, and six months out. People often get a flurry of support close to the incident, followed by a long quiet time. I find that going to lunch with them in these intervals allows me to be with them at times when loneliness or self-doubt can be most profound.

2. What don’t they want? They don’t want judgment, repetition, or assignments.
We may not realize it, but much of what we do when we try to reassure those who have lost loved ones is self-centered. Years ago, Mel Lerner described a common human motivation called the Just-World Hypothesis. We all want to believe the world is just and fair. If we work hard, eat right, exercise regularly, and do our share of house chores—life will work out. When we pass a traffic accident on the freeway, our belief in a “just world” is at risk for a moment. So somewhat reflexively, we drive slowly by the victim, scouring the scene for any evidence that it couldn’t possibly happen to us. “I bet they were texting while driving,” we might conclude as we notice a young driver. Or, “A sports car—figures. Poor fool.”

If you’re not careful, you can respond similarly to those who have experienced the death of a loved one. We want their pain to go away so we can reassure ourselves that we can avoid pain as well. So we offer advice on grieving, judgment to help them put their pain “in perspective,” etc. Be careful, because when we feel a need to make these kinds of comments, it’s often more because we want to restore our faith in a “just world” than because we want to soothe our friend’s pain.

Many reader comments complained of friends who offered judgment or unwanted advice rather than providing a simple connection.

  • My mother passed away last year after a fairly long illness. I struggled to get her the care and attention she needed while still managing my own life and career, so I hated when people I encountered said, “Why don’t you just do . . .?” On several occasions, I thought I was going to come over the table at the next person who authoritatively asked me why I didn’t do this or that to deal with the situation—like I was too stupid to think of the most basic, obvious solutions.
  • When I lost my seven-month-old daughter, I didn’t want any religious speech about how she was in a better place or that God had a plan for her. I just wanted (and still want) people to grieve with me.
  • At my father’s post-funeral luncheon, a friend told my stepmother that she would find herself dating again before long. I could hardly believe the insensitivity of the comment. My stepmother has struggled to forgive this person and realize it was an awkward attempt at helping her remember that in time, the pain will subside and life will take on a more routine feeling again.

Secondly, people don’t want you to force them to review the facts of the case for the hundredth time. They also might not want to give you an emotional health report. Be aware that asking, “So what happened?” or “How are you?” can put a burden on them.

  • During my wife’s long illness, we coached friends not to ask “How are you?” as a standard greeting. This forces the patient to choose between “I’m fine, how are you?” and a discussion of the medical treatments. It’s better that friends provide a positive change by simply stating, “How nice to see you!”
  • I recommend you offer condolences and say, “I’ve been thinking about you and/or praying for you.” A simple, “I don’t know what to say” or a hug is far better than a question that I have to respond to such as, “How are you?”

Finally, don’t give them an assignment. When we’re at a loss for what to say we often end with, “If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.” If you really want to do something, think. Stop and think about everything you know about their life. Where do they live? What little chores do they have to do to make it through a day? What extra tasks will now fall on them because of the loss? Empathize as best you can until you find some proactive task you can do to communicate real compassion. It won’t matter if it’s the perfect idea; it just matters that you take initiative rather than assign them to involve you. They rarely will, so the offer rings hollow.

After my neighbor lost a loved one his wonderful friend showed up to mow his lawn for the next three months. Did the man want his lawn mowed? I don’t know. I do know that he felt more love from that empathic gesture than if his neighbor had said, “What can I do?”

Here’s a comment from one of our readers:

  • I so appreciated those who just did things for me and didn’t ask me to “give them a call if I needed something.” Most of the time, I couldn’t think of what I needed or didn’t have the energy to make the call to ask.

3. What should you do when people say or do things that don’t help?
Our readers gave great advice about dealing with insensitive comments that came down to three wise suggestions:

First, be proactive. When you know you’re feeling very sensitive, tell people what you do and don’t want. One wise father avoided a whole lot of hurt feelings by just making it safe to grieve and feel differently—and encouraging his kids to let each other know what worked for them.

  • When my mother passed away, my father made it very clear that each family member would come to terms with our mother’s passing in different ways and times. He went on to say that “Grieving is a process and not an event. Each person had a different relationship with Mom and all of you have a different relationship with each other. We may say things without thinking them through, so please be sensitive and know there may be misunderstandings. Everyone needs to be patient with each other because we really don’t know what the other person is truly thinking.”

The most common piece of advice was to Master Your Story. Realize as you grieve that even those who make annoying comments are trying to deal with real emotions—yours or theirs. Let them be imperfect.

  • I don’t hold much store by what people said. Honestly, it’s only words and it’s often a sign that people feel awkward. It’s silly clinging onto words when none of it matters. Dying is part of life and none of us have the answers for doing it gracefully, we just have to get through it the best we can.
  • When others are insensitive, don’t take it personally. Try to understand that they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what to do. Make this the new story you tell yourself.

Finally, if you need to give others boundaries in what they say, do it quickly before you build up too much resentment. It’s perfectly fine to politely, but firmly, let people know what you don’t want.

  • When faced with insensitive comments, perhaps you could respond, “We all wish circumstances had not led to this end. I am not focusing on how my husband died, but that he is now gone. Your comments on how and why he died do not change the fact that I have lost my husband and my world has changed.”
  • My mother died recently. While we weren’t particularly close, I loved her very much and miss her dearly. Every time this subject came up in a conversation with my boss, she would say, “I know you weren’t very close to your mom . . .” It was time for a crucial conversation, so I asked to meet with her. I expressed to her how much I appreciated her support through my bereavement. I then asked her if I could request something of her that would be very important to my healing process. I said, “Could you please not mention that I wasn’t very close to my mom. I know you mean well, but it makes me feel bad and right now I want to focus on the good parts of our relationship.” It was a great lesson for both of us.

I hope this is helpful in providing ideas for how to offer greater and more useful love and support during one of life’s most poignant experiences.

We compiled many of our Crucial Skills Newsletter readers’ wonderful and helpful comments and would like to share them with you in this free e-book, How to Talk About the Loss of a Loved One: Dos and Don’ts of Comforting Others.

Joseph Grenny is a behavior change expert, four-time New York Times best-selling author, and co-founder of VitalSmarts.

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