There are lots of folks who make their living delivering trainings for people on how to deal with touchy situations in life. Things like crisis management, sexual harassment training, diversity, other-abled sensitivity workshops, etc.
I have not come across many resources for instructing people how to support a person who is experiencing grief.
There are times when I feel I must apologize for my fellow human beings. Clients share with me some thoughtless things people have said to them at their time of loss. I believe that people mean well. It's just that most of us don't have a comfortable relationship with strong emotions like grief, anger, or hopelessness. When feelings like this are expressed in our midst, most people will tend to gloss over it or try to shut it down.
Learning to tolerate other's reactions to your grief can be one of the most painful, yet necessary tasks of rebuilding your life after loss.
"You're young, you'll get married again someday." "I know how you feel....my grandma passed away too." "It's been a year, shouldn't you be over this by now?" "He's moved on. You need to move on too." "Don't feel bad, she's in a better place." "You need to be strong for the children." "Time heals all wounds." If you are grieving the loss of your spouse or partner through death or divorce, it's likely that you've heard these kinds of statements from others. How helpful are they? Not helpful at all, according to the Grief Recovery Institute.
Many people just don't know what to say when they encounter someone who is suffering. It's a rare person who is comfortable enough with his/her own emotional life that can tolerate the grief of another. For those of you who are experiencing intense grief, I understand it's enough to put you into a rage when you feel misunderstood on top of everything else you are going through.
The thing about the statements above is that they cause more harm than good, even if the intentions behind them are the best. So why do people keep saying them? It's likely that they have not received feedback from a stunned griever that is sufficient to get the point across. In other words, we don't know any better. Isn't it time we learned?
In a perfect universe, everyone would be taught how to approach a grieving person with empathy and to think before they do or say something that may unintentionally add to their suffering. I do understand that another person can't "make" you feel anything. Each person has the responsibility for their reactions to people and situations in their lives. Yet, there are times when tact, good manners, and compassion are sorely lacking in our society and a little grief awareness and sensitivity training are in order. Think of it as Empathy 101....
Six Helpful Things You Can Do/Say if Someone You Know Is Grieving:
- Ask, "How are you doing?" Then listen patiently to the answer without changing the subject or terminating the conversation. Create a safe space for them to talk about their experience if they would like to. You might feel honored that they trusted you enough to give an honest answer if it's something other than "Fine."
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.