Jason Spendelow Ph.D.

Bravery in Bereavement


Overcome Bereavement Discomfort and Support Others

Anxiety and communication in bereavement conversations.

Posted Dec 11, 2019

Death can be a terribly difficult subject. Losing a loved one forces us to confront painful realities, such as the lack of control or uncertainty that characterizes our world. Why wouldn't we want to skim over these topics? However, this avoidance denies us opportunities to become more at ease with grief and can interfere with attempts to help a bereaved friend or family member. How can you address your feelings of discomfort in order to support the bereaved?

The first step is to consider where your discomfort originates. Perhaps the topic is scary, maybe you have little experience with grief, or perhaps you worry about saying the wrong thing. Regardless of the reason, identifying the source of the discomfort allows you to address barriers to having bereavement conversations. If grief is unfamiliar, for example, there are many books and online resources available on loss, death, and mourning*. Addressing your discomfort can help you prepare to provide support, and hopefully enhance your own ability to cope when you lose someone.

The second step is to follow a simple listening strategy when in conversation with the bereaved. I recommend the following four guidelines:

  • Avoid Problem-Solving (at least immediately). Many are driven to take on the problem-solver role when someone is distressed. This is a perfectly understandable reaction. But bereaved people often just want to be listened to and understood. Adopting a problem-solving stance can be invalidating and discourage future conversations. Bereavement is not a 'problem' to be 'fixed.' The difficult reality is that grief is an ongoing process that involves gradually coming to terms with loss and change.  
  • Gently Gather Information. One way to promote active listening skills is to approach a bereavement conversation with the sole intention of compassionately gathering information about a person's experiences. When performed genuinely, this approach will likely promote focusing, showing interest, clarifying, and summarising what you hear. Think fact-finder, not advice-giver. Focused, sincere attention could be more valuable than any practical help you give.
  • Validate. Leading naturally on from being an engaged listener is the validation of painful experiences. The nature of grief is such that bereaved people can sometimes think they are going crazy or exist in a dark world from which there is no escape. Acknowledging the difficulty of bereavement does not usually make matters worse (as some fear). Statements that 'name' and 'normalize' distress are often beneficial (e.g., "It seems totally understandable that you feel so upset today").
  • Ask. "What can I do next to be helpful?" This question signals that you are available to provide further support. Supporters often feel unsure about how to help. Directly asking for guidance can overcome indecision about what to do. Do not panic if the bereaved person replies, "I don't know." Confusion is a normal part of grief. Simply repeat the question another time, or perhaps suggest a few simple possibilities (e.g., "I can pick you up from work tomorrow?" or, "How about I cook you a meal this weekend?").

Exploring your bereavement discomfort, then following a simple communication and listening strategy can help bring grief out from the shadows, providing benefits for the bereaved and those who support them.

* Other good resources include Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal or this article on supporting the bereaved.