You may be struggling with what to say to someone who is grieving. Take comfort and accept that there are no right words that can take away the pain of grief. That doesn’t mean you can’t be of tremendous help. Rather than delivering advice, insight or perspective, it is actually the power of listening and concrete actions that will be most beneficial to the person you care for.
Why do words fail? Grief is unique, and you cannot be familiar with another person’s bereavement facets. Even though you may have experienced someone you love dying, your relationship was one-of-a-kind, and so was the relationship of the person you are trying to help. Saying, “I know how you feel.”, will not be received well. Since the bereaved person is certain that you don’t fully understand, but are asserting that you do, they will feel even more alone and misunderstood. Another reason that words fail, is that grief is visceral. An intellectualization, such as, “Your mother lived a good, long life”, communicates, “Don’t be sad for her or yourself.” This can offend. To a person of faith, the most beautiful of offerings, such as, “Your daughter is now with God”, may be comforting; however, the person may also feel that their secular pain and fear have been left unaddressed. Here’s the bottom-line regarding words: Unless you can factually say, “There was a mix up at the hospital. Your loved one is there, very much alive and waiting to see you.”, stop searching for the right words to take away pain. They don’t exist.
Now let’s talk about what you can do to help, through the power of listening and understanding. There is a school of thought that suggests having one’s thoughts and feelings acknowledged is the most important thing to humans, next to food and shelter. Most humans do not want to travel this road called existence alone. We want to wonder at it, celebrate it and cry about it with someone else. Therefore, allowing a grieving person to mourn is extremely therapeutic, and it is a rare gift in our day and age. You will be exceedingly helpful by just being present and listening to a person in mourning.
Instead of avoiding conversations about the death for fear of tears and sadness, be open to sharing in the person’s thoughts and feelings. It is very common for intense grief, with its ebb and flow, to continue for 2-3 years. Be comforted, your willingness to listen will not take the person backward- to a painful place- they have never left that place! It is a fair bet that they have been suffering in silence and you can help them out of their isolation, by non-judgmental and non-prescribing listening.
Is being a good caregiver all that simple? Well, yes and no. The person may be cautious, because they’ve felt the uneasiness of others, when it comes to their mourning. Most likely, they have been met with euphemisms, judgments, callousness, or even made to feel ashamed about their grief. You’ll have to delicately “open the door” and then let them decide if they feel safe enough to talk about the death. If and when they do, you must prove worthy, as just described. It takes courage to listen and not change the subject, when tears start to flow. It takes courage to be present in the moment and not attempt to find words to relieve their anguish. As the grieving person shares, they must know that, “you get it”, - that you understand what they are describing. That takes a bit of skill, but nothing that cannot be mastered with a little study and practice. Search reflective listening skills.
Don’t forget the easy, obvious things! House cleaning, yard work, or lunch, to name a few, are some of the concrete things you can do that communicate that the world is still a place with kindness and love in it. Indeed, there are words that are usually well-received. Remembering the loved one for their positive traits and special times shared are appreciated. May a tear flow? Yes, but you did not create it; you only helped release it.
With time, lots of time, and a friend like you, as a companion, the person will eventually find value in living. A word of caution is warranted here; if the grieving person hints, shows signs or talks of hurting themselves, seek professional help! Our country has become more sensitive to mental health concerns, and intervention is now recognized as a positive action, in the care for someone in crisis.
Call or email us for a free book, Understanding Your Grief, by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. Whether you are a grieving person or a caregiver, it will help you through the journey. In addition to the book, below are group listings, where people can come together, to share and receive help with the pain of having a loved-one die.