My wife and I found an incredible documentary the other day. It is called Speaking Grief (link at end of post). It follows different families and their stories of loss, all for the sake of bringing awareness to something crucially important… we live in a death-denying and discomfort-avoidant society, inevitably leading us to struggle with how to interact with our own grief, while not even coming close to effectively caring for the grief of others.
I have been there. On multiple occasions. The person you are speaking with has just learned about someone in your life who has died, or been diagnosed, or has left your family. You watch as they categorize the loss, comparing it to what they know to be “normal” and “abnormal.” You quickly want to jump in and save the moment by soothing their struggle to find the right words.
But you are exhausted. You’ve been telling people about the event over and over again. You think about it every moment of every day for longer than people think is “normal.” You are overcome by it. Your brain chemistry has changed. Your value system has changed. I know it sounds dramatic, but if you know, you know.
So, you give them a split second of space to respond to the news. 95% of the time, what follows varies from faux-sympathy and unhelpful to down-right rude and baffling.
Everyone needs some amount of grace when trying to formulate a response to another’s devastating news of loss. But most wait until the moment the situation occurs to think through, on the fly, how they want to communicate their emotions to a grieving person.
By then it is most likely too late. I have been that person. When my best friend died when I was 18 I told his parents that God needed him in Heaven more than He needed him here. Let that sink in. I have screwed up too.
So, this is my attempt at giving you a moment before that next moment. Some space to decide what you really want to say, or not say. A place to practice. There are dozens, but here are 4 ideas to consider when speaking with someone who has shared a loss, a grief.
1. Take a Deep, Audible Breath
So simple. But so effective. First, it serves as a pause. It gives you an actual chance at collecting yourself before saying something empty or rude. You need to give your own emotions time to catch up with the news. And a grieving person’s world can be moving slower than yours, especially if they are in shock. (Also, don’t just freeze either. You can imagine what kind of moment that creates for the person in pain).
You don’t need to rush into words, you don’t need to manage your facial expression, you don’t need to alleviate the awkwardness they feel that they just dumped the news on an unassuming person. Just. Breathe. Out loud.
Taking a deep, audible breath also serves as a communication. Allow your exhale to communicate your sympathy and if appropriate, empathy. Sometimes breath is more powerful than words. Sometimes your exhale alone is the most effective communicator of genuine care.
2. Be Careful With What You Are Requiring
The most obvious question people have is “What do I say?” and “What shouldn’t I say?” Everyone has their own opinion about different phrases. As a griever, when you hear certain phrases repeatedly, you become very competent at discerning genuineness. An easier way to find answers to the above questions is to filter the response through: “Does what I say require something unnecessary from the person?”
Example: Most people specializing in grief psychology will tell you that saying a form of “I am sorry” requires the person to respond with:
“It’s ok” (they are now comforting you, and it is not ok)
“I am too” (a blunt response that really means “That’s great that you are sorry, but that does not fix anything”)
“Thanks” (Some would say you are requiring the person to validate your apology)
…and why are you apologizing? Because it is an extremely easy and convenient way to accomplish the bare minimum. There are better things to say that do not close off the conversation. If you want to be effective and genuine, express your own emotion: “I really miss him/her,” “What have the past _ days or weeks been like for you?” or “That breaks my heart” (if that is true).
3. Be Careful How You Shift the Attention
This is a biggie. Speaking from experience, it is SO easy to shift the attention from the person who is in pain, to yourself. In a split second. Usually this happens by bringing up your own experience or grief.
Easy rule: Don’t start to talk about your own experience until the person asks. In the early stages of bereavement, a person can have a significantly hard time synthesizing someone else’s experience into comfort for their own, especially when that person was not directly affected. It is not until the person has had time (don’t ask how long) to process their grief that they begin to desire the comfort of shared events with people who were not directly affected by their personal event.
Also, try not to articulate that everything is going to be ok. For many people, it will never ever again “be ok.” It is more meaningful to sit with someone in their darkness, than it is to drag them into your light.
4. Don’t Ask How You Can Help, Just Help
There is only one time I have ever heard someone respond positively to this question, and that was by saying “just be with me.” Remember that the person has tens, if not hundreds, of people asking them this question.
The best thing you can do is to take action. Try something out. It may fail, but you will learn what works and get better.
Better yet. Take one action now and delay other actions for specific anniversaries of the event. Did you know that care for a person in pain is highly concentrated around the first days or weeks after the event? But it is maybe one month out, or 6 months, or 1 year, when most people have forgotten the event and the emotion, but the person is reliving a version of the event because of some catalyst. Maybe it is the first holiday without a person in their life. Maybe it is their birthday. On and on, you never know. So, try delaying actions until those points in time.
And NEVER be afraid to bring the event up in conversation. I know many people hesitate to address the elephant in the room because they think that they may cause the person more pain by bringing the event to mind. However, the person is probably thinking of their loss/grief every second of every day. You may get to (wisely…) join them in that space when you speak up.
If the person does not wish to be reminded of the event, they can tell you, but transition, grief, and loss can be the loneliest dwelling for any person.
To wrap this all up, I will say it again: Everyone needs some amount of grace when trying to formulate a response to another’s devastating news of loss. But most wait until that very moment to think through, on the fly, how they want to communicate their emotions to a grieving person. By then it is most likely too late.
There is no perfect way to speak grief. It is one of those areas of life that will always remain mysterious. It may require intentionality. A “reading of the room.” But it will always require a beating heart.