“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break. ” – William Shakespeare
I talk about my son every day. He is still a major part of my life and identity. To not mention him would feel unnatural and stifled. A concerted effort would have to be made on my part to avoid his name. Yet I see you stiffen uncomfortably and shift in your chair. I see you look away. I hear you change the subject. I need you to stay and listen. I need you to be understanding and brave.
The bereaved need to talk about their loss to process and accept it. Avoiding the topic can lead to physical and emotional problems. It can damage relationships, destroy careers and finances. So how can you help? What should you say? Should you say anything at all? What should you do if they cry? What should you do if you do?
- Do not change the subject. For the bereaved triggers are everywhere. A song, commercial, place, saying, color, food, and the list goes on. When a trigger is encountered you better bet a griever is likely to say something. It may be brief. “This was his/her favorite song.” It may be a lengthy description of the time he/she did something or was somewhere. The trigger has brought forth the memory. The memory is all they have left. By allowing them an opportunity to share it, you are helping them to keep their lost loved one close to heart. The last thing a griever want to feel is that their loved one is forgotten or not important. If you change the subject because you are uncomfortable you could be sending the wrong signal.
- Do not offer clichés or platitudes. “I know how your feel.” “They are in a better place.” “God needed another angel.” “You’re so strong, I could never imagine going through this.” You’re not helping. Let me repeat that. You….are….not….helping. The griever is not sharing with you to ask you to fix it, them or even make sense of their loss. They simply are sharing because their loved one is and always will be a major part of their life. After all, this is the only way they experience life with that person anymore, through remembering. Don’t feel like you have to say something to make them feel better. You may not know what to say and sometimes saying nothing is better than saying something meaningless like, “Time heals all wounds.”
- Do not be afraid they will cry. Yes, having someone break down in front of you is uncomfortable. Especially if you do not know what to do or say. You may want to avoid the topic of their lost loved one for fear that you will remind them of it. Let me assure you that they have not forgotten. Don’t assume talking about their loss will always make them sad. If the grieving person does cry when speaking to you remember that it is a natural part of the healing process. Some memories will bring laughter and other tears. As time goes on the bereaved may cry less often when speaking of their loved one, but that will take some practice. However, there are times that the tears will flow no matter how long it has been. By allowing them a safe place to cry, you are actually helping them heal. Your job here is not to stop them or prevent them from crying. The only job you have here is to do your best to not make them feel uncomfortable for showing emotions.
- Do not be afraid to cry, or not. Death is sad and talking about a lost loved one often will insight tears. Like I said before, tears are a good thing and not to be avoided. If you are move to the point of tears know that you will not offend the griever. If you aren’t, you won’t either. The big thing here is be natural. Do not force tears, do not hold back. Grief is an emotionally charged process and you are bound to feel some too when you are listening to a griever talk about their loss. Do not be afraid that you will make things worse by shedding a tear. Again, remember that you are not there to make it better. You are there to listen and be a safe place for the griever to open up. An honest emotional response will let them know that you have heard them and that what they are sharing is meaningful.
- Ask questions. It is okay to ask questions, even the hard ones but try to avoid the stupid ones like, “How do you do it?” There is no actual how in this case…the sun just rises again the next day. That is how. When you ask questions about their loved one or the memory you are showing that you care, not only about the griever but about their lost loved one too. Questions will allow them to move through the memory or feelings with focus. Rather than having them go on a tangent your questions can direct the conversation and help the griever express their feelings.
- Thank them for sharing. This is a big deal and if you don’t know what to say to a grieving friend or family member that is sharing about their loss, say this verbatim. “Thank you for sharing.” That is it.
They key thing to remember is that the griever is ultimately seeking healing by opening up to you about their loss or loved one. They have chosen to trust you, not burden you with the details. Your response can have a positive or negative effect.