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What's the Right Thing to Say When Someone Is Grieving?

Four simple steps for supporting the people we care about.

Pixabay/Annie Spratt
Source: Pixabay/Annie Spratt

Each year, I teach a class on grief and loss to masters students studying to become counselors. On the first day of class, I give them a simple assignment: Jot down a few paragraphs about your biggest fears and concerns regarding working with clients facing losses. The overwhelming answer I receive comes in the form of a question: “How will I know what to say? And, if I say the wrong thing, will I make things worse?”

Keep in mind that these are people training to become therapists. In most situations, they have no problem thinking of what to say. But when it comes to serious illness and death, they find themselves at a loss for words. And, they’re not alone. According to a recent survey of Certified Nursing Assistants and Home Health Aids, approximately one-third of respondents said they felt unprepared for what to say and do in the aftermath of a patient’s death.

If you’ve ever had friends lose someone they love—a grandparent, parent, partner, or even a child—you may have wondered the same thing. Should you say, “I’m sorry”? After all, it wasn’t your fault. What about “Everything will be all right”? The truth is, in some sense, it might not be. You could always say, “My condolences.” But somehow this sounds overly formal.

So, what should you say?

According to psychologist Charles Garfield, founder of the Shanti Project, a volunteer-powered organization that cares for the needs of seriously ill and dying people, that’s the wrong question to ask. “There is no right thing, as if it’s a programmed text, as if there’s the right thing in all times and places,” he told me during an interview on KPFA’s About Health.

Instead, he advises, we should focus more on listening. “I wish I could say something to take it all away, but I can’t,” he lamented. “What I can do is listen... Be available to the person, listen to their stories.”

But, unless we’re therapists, we haven't been specifically trained in listening. In fact, listening can feel downright scary, and it’s tempting to rush in and try to say something that will “fix” the situation. When it comes to loss, however, fixing is impossible. Instead, we can only be with the bereaved person in the reality that their loved one will never return. Garfield proposes four steps that can help us access our ability to do this:

Step 1: Stop at the threshold.

It’s easy to get caught up in our feelings—the hustle and bustle of the day, the stresses of work, our misgivings about ourselves. We have busy lives, and we’re often coming off of traffic jams, deadlines, and to-do lists. We can’t just race into a conversation with someone in pain and think we can shut all that out and be good listeners. Instead, we must flip our minds into a different “mode”—not one of doing, solving, and fixing, but instead one of deep listening. The best way to do this is to take a few minutes to pause, breathe, and quiet our minds. “Remind yourself why you’ve come,” Garfield writes in his book Life’s Last Gift. “It’s not to impose an agenda, and it’s not to make the whole situation go away. You can’t.” Instead, you’re there to show love and support, to find out what is needed.

Step 2: Get close and make contact.

The next step is to actually begin the conversation. There are many right ways to do this, and the specific words probably don’t matter as much as the general message, “I’m here for you.” So, keep it simple. Start by asking them something like, “How are you? How are things going for you today?” Then, take your cues from how they respond. Maybe they’d like to talk about something light and distracting—the upcoming ballgame, family gossip, or the eggs they had for breakfast. Alternatively, they may be ready to talk about the pain they’re going through or stories about the person they’ve lost. Either way, follow their lead.

Step 3: Keep returning to the topic when you drift.

Deep listening is a bit like meditating. In meditation, people are encouraged to focus on a single stimulus, often their breathing. When distracting thoughts arise, meditators acknowledge these thoughts with compassion and then let them go, returning to the breath. In deep listening, our minds just as easily can wonder. “Your thoughts will likely range far and wide,” writes Garfield. “I’m so scared. What do I do? ... Why is this happening? How much longer do I have to stay? He’s really off the wall. I have no idea what to say. I can’t stand another minute of this.” This kind of inner dialogue is totally normal. And, just like in meditation, when this happens—and it will many times—we can gently bring our focus back to the person we’re trying to help.

Step 4: Remember to keep breathing.

It takes courage to support someone going through pain. The natural human temptation is to run away from discomfort. But when we truly care about someone, we overcome that tendency, opening ourselves up to the person's feelings instead. It’s important not to get too caught up in another's problems, however. The fourth step is about reminding ourselves that, even though we're there to support the grieving individual, we’re also a separate person. His or her pain is not our pain. Another grief expert, psychologist Dale Larson, suggests that people can easily fall into what he calls the “helper’s pit.” When people are going through a loss, it’s normal and natural for them to fall in a pit of despair. But, as we reach down into that pit to help them, we should remind ourselves not to fall in with them. Garfield suggests using our breath as a sort of tether. “If you find that you’re lost in your own reactions,” he writes, “take a few slow breaths to help clear your mind and bring your focus back to the other person.” Even while you’re with that person, be in your own body, with your own breath. Know that you can best help others when you are grounded within yourself.

Perhaps all of this advice can be summarized best with these words from Garfield’s book: “There is one promise that... people need to hear, more than any other, from those who love and care about them: I choose to be with you in a healing partnership... I will stand with you in the midst of despair.”

Doing so is never easy, of course. But it’s also one of the most important things any of us can do for the people in our lives.

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