I was 19 years old when I was faced for the first time with not knowing what to say when somebody has lost a family member. I had a one room apartment in the city in which I was attending university. At the beginning of the month, I used to go downstairs to the landlord’s apartment to pay the rent. A week prior, my landlord had been admitted to hospital. As I was paying my December rent that year, I casually asked if he was feeling better. His wife replied that he had died. For a moment, I was speechless. It felt like kicking myself for asking her. Then I must have managed to stutter some words of condolence, but feeling extremely ill-equipped for this situation. I know I wasn’t alone with this feeling of not knowing how to speak words of real comfort. Unfortunately, nobody teaches us what to say or do when loss occurs.
When I returned to my apartment, I wondered who to call and to ask for advice. My mom, who had lost her own mother when she was young, broke out in tears each time anybody spoke about death. Today, I know she carried around a lot of unresolved grief. So I decided to call my grandmother instead. She was close to 80 at that time, and had experienced many losses during her life. She told me she always made sure she had a bunch of fresh flowers in a vase next to the picture of my late grandfather. She suggested to do the same for my landlady, to buy her flowers. She also recommended to check if I could help by getting groceries or do other errands for her.
My landlady and her husband did not seem to have a very loving relationship; in fact, I often wondered if he physically and emotionally abused her. I didn’t want to assume that she would put up a picture of her husband with flowers next to it, yet this seemed better than any words I could think of.
In fact, there are several things which are particularly unhelpful to the grieving person.
- “Don’t cry”, “don’t be sad”, “don’t feel bad” and so on denies the grieving person to have their own feelings.
- “Time heals all wounds” or “just give it time”. Time itself does not heal. It is what we do with that time that will help us complete the pain caused by the loss.
- Comments in regards to the person’s age: “He had a long life” or “Be grateful you had her for so long”. No matter how old our loved one was, we have a right to miss them.
- “You can have more children” or “be thankful you have another son” or “you are still young, you can get married again”. How can we possibly compare one loved one to another, or substitute one child or partner with another? The loss is always experienced at a 100%.
- Comments of a religious nature, like “she is in heaven / in a better place” or “God will never give you more than you can handle”. No matter what my beliefs of an afterlife are, whether my loved one is in a better place or not has nothing to do with the loss I am experiencing. “God gave me this challenge because I can handle it” translates to “I have to be strong”.
- “You have to be strong for…” or “the living must go on”. Instead of allowing ourselves to feel and to grieve, we are asked to suppress our feelings.
- “I know how you feel”. All relationships are unique. Even if you and the grieving person for example have both lost your mother, your relationship with your mother was unique and completely different than his or hers. This also applies when you are experiencing the loss of the same person. You both had an individual and very different relationship to the dead person.
- “You have to keep busy now” or “you must stay active”. Keeping busy buries the painful feelings while you distract yourself with activities, but at the end of the day the pain is exactly the same.
You might now wonder what is left that is actually helpful to say to a grieving person. The unhelpful comments originate from feeling uncomfortable with another person’s emotions. Remind yourself that it is okay to feel unpleasant feelings. You do not need to “fix” anything, you just need to be present. It can also be very healing to cry. Here are a few suggestions:
- If you know the person well enough you might want to offer them a hug. But be very sensitive whether this physical approach is welcome or not. Not everybody likes hugs.
- Understand that people express grief differently. Don’t expect to see particular stages of grief. Some people might feel more emotional including angry. Others might withdraw because they have learned to grieve alone. Others might act as if they are just fine. Listen without judgment to their feelings.
- A better alternative to “I know how you feel” is “I can’t imagine how you must feel” and then allow the griever to share how they actually feel.
- Listen. Listen. And don’t rush to hand over the Kleenex to stop the crying when the tears are flowing. Allow the grieving person to feel what they are feeling and to talk about the person they have lost and about their relationship. Hold a loving space. Refrain from making comments about yourself and your losses, or rushing the person to feel better. Be like a heart with big ears. There is nothing to do but to actively listen. Active listening means responding with facial expressions and sounds while you allow the other person to fully express their loss experience, including crying.
- Every day tasks can be overwhelming when the grief is fresh. Lend a helping hand. Get groceries, cook food, do the laundry, do the gardening, walk the dog or take care of the little children.
Holiday celebrations are coming up and with them come unresolved grief. This time of the year can trigger great sadness for people. We might not be able to be with a wonderful loving family, because some of our beloved family members have passed on. So this can be a time of feeling loneliness and the pain of a loss.
That applies whether our family members have died or whether we have been estranged with them. You might also be of service to friends or family members when they are grieving an estrangement with somebody. Listen, non-judgmentally, to how they are feeling. You don’t need to fix it. It is also not at all helpful to commiserate with them and tell them what an awful person the family member they are missing was and that they are better off without him or her.
Some family members have brought so much toxicity into our lives that we had to opt for no contact with them, for example in the case of a narcissistic personality disorder or addictions. However, even though we might have made that choice for our own peace and well-being, we can still grieve that the relationship wasn’t “better, more or different”.
John W. James and Russell Friedman offer a way to achieve completion of all loss relationships with their grief recovery program. It’s an excellent program for death, divorce and over 40 other losses.
For individual sessions contact Angelika
Certified Grief Specialist, Belief Change Coach and Workshop Facilitator
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