How to Listen to Those in Mourning
What the bereaved need from listeners.
Posted Jan 11, 2020
There is a difference between hearing and listening. We can hear what someone is saying, but how often do we really listen?
Listening is a skill that can be developed and can have a positive impact in all areas of your life, most certainly in your close relationships. Therapists are not born with good listening skills, but we are taught them as part of our training.
There are many reasons why people don’t listen. Our attention span is short, we are in a hurry, and there always seem to be distractions around us. Frequently, we do not listen, because we are thinking about what we are going to say in response to the speaker.
When someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, we have trouble listening, because it is so painful. It stirs up all of our own feelings about loss. We feel awkward. We usually do not know what to say and are afraid of making a mistake. Being uncomfortable makes us want to change the topic or try to leave the situation as soon as possible. Unfortunately, what the bereaved really want and need is someone who can listen and be supportive.
While what we say to the bereaved is important, we cannot fix the situation. What we can offer is an ear. There are some basic things that we can all do to be better listeners that don’t require any special training.
First, it is important to find a safe, comfortable place to talk, where there are minimal distractions. Be patient. Put down whatever you are doing. Turn your cell phone off or mute it so that you are not disturbed or tempted to look at it while listening.
Look at the person with whom you are speaking. Try to keep comments to a minimum and only when there is a pause in the conversation. Try not to interrupt the speaker. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is beneficial at times to sit in the silence. Just being with the person at that moment can be powerful.
Remember, this is about listening to the bereaved. Be sure you are not pressed for time. Nothing can be worse than starting to open up about a painful loss only to have the listener be in a hurry and need to leave. You can also reach out to hug or hold the hand of the speaker if it is someone you know well. For others, ask if it would be alright with them. Also, making understanding utterances, such as uh-huh or nodding your head, can be helpful and let the speaker know you are following what they are saying.
In 1988, Harville Hendrix, a marriage therapist, introduced the Imago technique to facilitate and improve communication between couples. It is called mirroring and is one of the best exercises for learning how to truly listen. To practice, find someone with whom you feel comfortable. It can be your spouse or a friend. One of you will say a brief message or statement while the other listens. As practice, you might even have someone roleplay a person who is grieving and talking about their loss. Essentially, there are three basic parts involved: mirroring, validating, and empathizing.
Mirroring involves repeating or reflecting back on what you heard the speaker say in a non-judgemental way. This is not the time to say you shouldn't feel or think that way. That would essentially shut down the speaker. This may feel uncomfortable and artificial, as we are not used to speaking and listening in this way.
Validation is the next important part of being a good listener. You don’t necessarily have to agree with the speaker, but the point is to support and validate their point of view. Saying “I don't believe you” or “you shouldn’t think or feel that way” will invalidate the speaker and shut down communication. Paraphrasing what you heard the speaker say, and clarifying if that was indeed what the speaker said, lets the speaker know you are listening and trying to understand them.
Empathizing is about understanding and conveying back to the speaker what you believe they are feeling. If you hear someone talk about being angry, and you think they shouldn’t feel that way, keep that to yourself and simply validate the speaker's feelings. Saying “I know how you feel” is not empathizing but rather inserting yourself into their narrative.
After all, a time will come for all of us to be mourners. Consider how you would want someone to listen and hear you. When mourning a loved one, feeling understood and heard can be exactly what they need.
1) Hendrix, Harville (1988). Getting The Love You Want. Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc. New York, New York.