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