Comforting Others in Times of Grieving and Loss: The Dos and Don’ts

Comforting Others in Times of Grieving and Loss:  The Dos and Don’ts

What’s the worst thing you can imagine someone saying to a grieving person?  Whatever you’ve just come up with in your head, I am willing to bet that it’s already been said aloud.  And, not in an attempt to be insensitive, but by someone whose intentions were likely pure!

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/curvabezier

As a therapist, I speak with a lot of people about their experience with grieving and what support they’ve received to cope with the pain of their loss. I also hear a lot of stories about well-meaning, but misguided, comments that they’ve been told. At a recent luncheon, I met a young woman whose baby was born still.  She shared that soon afterwards a neighbor had offered his condolences by comparing her loss with his mare’s stillborn colt.  At the time, this thoughtless comment enraged the grieving mother.  Today, her pain around this incident has lifted somewhat, partly due to the realization that the neighbor was probably trying to connect with her and to express empathy. What this neighbor will never know, however, is how his misstep has been remembered, discussed, and still hurts years later.

Knowing what to say to someone who is grieving is not always clear and it often raises our anxiety levels.  We don’t want to accidentally say something that will cause more harm than good, like the neighbor in the story above.  We ask ourselves: “What if I say the wrong thing?  How could anything I say actually make the bereaved feel any better?”  We try to quell the anxiety through rationalizations: “I’m sure that he’s getting lots of calls … I don’t want to overwhelm him.”  It’s true, you cannot take away another’s grief.  There are things that you can do and say, however, that can be helpful and supportive.

Here are some dos and don’ts:

Don’t . . .

… express platitudes such as “Heaven needed another angel.”  The bereaved wants the deceased here with them now, alive.

…avoid or evade.  Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing lead you to say nothing.  Learn to tame your own anxiety around reaching out to the bereaved.

…try to make the bereaved feel better quickly or tell them to dry their tears.  Grief is a natural part of the healing process and not a pathology.  Allowing them time and a safe place to feel and express their pain is a true gift.

Do

…respect their space by asking what they need.  Offer the bereaved a compassionate ear.  At times, they may accept and at others, they may need to retreat and regroup with some time alone.  Grieving is exhausting work and takes a tremendous amount of energy.

…let the bereaved know that you are available to them and care.  It can be something as simple as “I know that nothing I can say can take away the pain of your loss, but I want you to know that I care about you and am here for you.”

…be patient with yourself.  If you stumble and accidentally say something that could be interpreted as minimizing the pain of the bereaved, apologize and take steps towards repair.

Do you have stories of your own where people have been insensitive to your loss?

How did you handle it?

How are you still dealing with it today?

What would have been most helpful for someone to say to you during that time?

About Marnee

Marnee Reiley is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern in Irvine, CA. Certified in Grief and Bereavement Counseling, Marnee is honored to work with couples, individuals, and families with adjustment to life transitions, communication, and healthy adaptation to loss and change. To learn more you can visit her website at www.YourOCTherapist.com. To contact Marnee directly call 949-648-7991 or email her at YourOCTherapist@gmail.com.
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  • Monica Trentini

    When a good friend of mine died, my fiancee’s reaction was … none at all. He claimed that people don’t die, they just transform or transcend. That was no help at all. He just wanted me to get over it. Now we are married and it is hard to think he will not grieve my passing. But that is true. I try not to think about it.

  • Dear Monica,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I can imagine that it was painful to not hear what you’d hoped for at your friend’s passing. As I wrote in the article, I know that our loved ones often have the best intentions in wanting to give us comfort, but unfortunately, they sometimes miss the mark.

    Wishing you all the best,
    Marnee

  • Hi Marnee –

    This is a great post, you have hit the mark! Most people are not sure what to say when a death occurs, and I think most people are afraid to say anything, fearing to make matters worse. I know from my own personal experience that sometimes silence is golden and just someones presence is all that matters. I will never forget the friends that helped me walk through the most difficult death in my life, I will never be able to tell you what they said to me in those days. I am forever grateful to them and I will always be indebted to them.

    Thank you Marnee for your Wisdom

  • Carrie Bayer

    Marnee, thank you so much for sharing your expertise on this subject. I’ll bet most everyone has found themselves at a loss for words when talking with someone who is grieving. I have had some people say things to me that were off the mark but I knew they meant well, but it was still difficult to hear. Thank you so much for sharing! Carrie

  • Ms. Fran Cantor

    Dear Marnee,

    I notice thru time that we all express our Grief in different ways due to personality.
    Grief is so profound that each one of us don’t know how we will react and feel the Empty
    Heart. Unless we be thru a lost. I have lost My Dar Husband, Four Sibling, Parents,
    Aunts & Uncles. My Heart has been so Empty for years. What gave me strength was
    My Faith and Love that was given to me. By Friends let me express what I was feeling
    Talking help me and people just being there for me. At times I’m lost!!
    Now my Five Precious Children are by my side and I”M Blessed. + Frannie

  • Patricia Kolstad

    Good Morning Marnee,

    I’ve heard so many of these stories that you have shared, I sometimes I cannot believe that folks don’t think deeply before they speak. In our efforts here at O’Connor to educate professionals and lay volunteers, we strive to provide the right tools so they feel empowered to connect with grieving families in a more sensitive and caring manner. Your wisdom her justifies our efforts to educate, and makes me realize that we are doing the right thing.

    When my dad died, I was heartbroken. It seemed that nothing was going to make it better and nothing was going to relieve the pain I felt in my heart. I missed him the moment I found out, knowing I would never again hear his voice or feel his wonderful hugs. I really don’t remember now, if anyone unknowingly said anything hurtful. I do however, remember the cards and notes I received.

    We now live in an IT world, where everyone connects via Facebook, phone texting, Skype, etc. Gone are the days when we make an effort to write a note in a sympathy card and send it off. My dad died nearly 20 years ago, and I received many heartfelt words from my friends. Interestingly, I will still pull them out and read them. They not only remind me that my dad is gone, but they remind me how much love I received through those little notes of care.

    So when I may be at a loss for words, I simply take pen to hand and send a note of love to a friend or acquaintance who has experienced a loss. I know now, from my own experience, that those notes hold wonderful memories my dad and of the friends who took the time to care.

    Thank you again, Marnee, for reminding us how important it is to connect with the grieving. And, as the weeks and months go by, another note in the mail that says simply, “I’m thinking about you” will certainly bring comfort to a weary soul.

    Nicely done!
    Pat

  • Lori Bristol

    Hello Marnee,

    I can definitely relate to this post.
    My neighbor recently lost her adult daughter unexpectedly in a freak accident. This is a neighbor I see frequently, as we usually walk our dogs around the same time.
    I work for a mortuary and I found myself avoiding her! I would go out at different times so I did not run into her. If I was driving by I pretended not to see her.
    The pain was written all over her face and I did not know how to approach her.
    Finally I saw her getting her mail one day and forced myself to walk over to her. I just hugged her and told her I didn’t even have words, but I’m here. If she needs me to walk the dogs, share stories of her daughter, grab dinner, anything she might need.
    It is hard to take that step, but what a relief once you do.

    Thank you for these Do’s and Dont’s.
    I will find them most useful next time I am in this situation.

    Lori

  • It has been so gratifying to read everyone’s comments posted above. Thank you all for taking the time to share your personal experiences, and further the conversation on this subject.

    Lori, your description of avoiding your grieving neighbor is not unique; I know that many people want to say something but have a hard time finding adequate words to express their empathy. It took a lot of courage for you to face the apprehension, and you say it was a relief when you did.

    Patricia, I love your idea about sending a note a couple of months later, in addition to the initial support, to let the bereaved know that you are thinking about them. Some people might worry that, by doing so, they’ll be “reopening the wound” but it’s not usually so. Typically, the note will be well-received. After all, you certainly are not the one “reminding” them that their loved one is no longer here. They live with the loss every day. And, what a loving gesture it is to offer the added support when some time has passed.

    Frannie, you have experienced tremendous loss. How wonderful to know that you have been supported and bolstered by others in your life who care for you.

    Carrie, thank you for your comments. I can imagine that those comments, though well-intentioned, did hurt to hear.

    Neil, what you said is so wise. Yes, it’s often the supportive and loving presence of our friends and family that we remember later, not necessarily the precise words.

    I wish you and other readers a happy and safe holiday,
    Marnee

  • Sharon Watkins

    It has been so enlightening and helpful to read everyone’s postings. I believe that nothing but time and love are going to really begin to heal a broken heart and spirit, but a big hug and someone telling me (even months & years later) – “I’m so sorry for your loss” makes me feel a little bit better and stronger.

    When expressing your feelings to another person who has just experienced a devastating loss – less is better! Your presence and hug is what they will remember – and like Pat said – that kind, loving handwritten note is there to reread even years later…

    Thank you for discussing a very important subject.

    Sincerely,
    Sharon

    • Dear Sharon,

      Thank you so much for your comments. I agree: less is more.

      Wishing you all the best,
      Marnee

  • Kari Leslie

    Marnie,
    Thank you for this very helpful blog. Sometimes answering the phone here at the Mortuary can be daunting. I surely appreciate the the “Do” of letting the person know you are there for them. I know that I’m a stranger to many of the families that contact us, but even a stranger can be there for you to walk with you and help in a difficult time. I try to reassure all of the families that I speak with, that I am just a phone call away, and will do my best to help in any way that I can. Even if it’s just to listen….

    Thank you again,
    Karilyn

    • Patricia Kolstad

      Nicely said, Kari!

    • Dear Kari,

      I can imagine that it can be daunting, being the one on the front lines, interacting with grieving families. What a comfort to know that yes, even a stranger can be a great support in times of loss.

      Thank you for what you do!

      Marnee

  • Jeff Turner

    Dear Marnee,

    Thank you so much for this posting. It is so encouraging to know that I don’t have to try to alleviate their pain and loss. All I really need to do is show up, express love and support for them. I know from my own grieving moments that just seeing the faces of dear friends who took the time to be present was all I needed them to do. Their thoughtful presence spoke everything my heart needed to hear.

    This gives me greater confidence knowing what I can do and should avoid when it is my turn to be present for others. Thank you again,

    Jeff

  • Marnee,

    Thanks for your blog, great topic and such a sensitive issue for all of us. Nobody knows what another is actually going through when grief strikes and we are dealing with a loss in our lives. We do not always know what to say, sometimes you do not have to say anything. Empathy is a word and action that we have been talking about great deal lately at O’Connors. The art of listening to understand, this is what most bereaved people need. Being there with an ear so they can tell their story without judgement. Very well intentioned people will say some pretty insensitive things to grieving people. When my infant son Matthew died some 16 years ago now, I can still remember some comments that just hit me like a punch in the gut… “You will have more children, you are still young” I did not want more children, I wanted him. “Oh he was so young, you really did not have much time to get to know him, when my dad died that was worse because I knew him my whole life” Now I also remember an outpouring of love from family and friends that gave me strength to move forward and the freedom to be whatever it was I needed to be in that moment. We are not perfect, we will say and do things that harm with out trying to do so, hopefully we can just be there for them and allow them the freedom to be what they need to be. Thanks for the great blog, we all need to be reminded of the do’s and dont’s.

    • Dear Chuck,

      I can only imagine how those comments must have wounded you. I appreciate your sharing…I know that reading of your experience can help to support others who are in a similar situation.

      All the best,
      Marnee

  • Amy

    Thank you for the insight on such a great topic. We all find ourselves in these types of situation at one time or another. It may be with someone close to you or someone you barely know. Being that everyone deals with death differently and grieves differently it is always helpful to know what to say or what shouldn’t be said. Just letting the person know you are there even if you don’t say anything at all is comforting. Sometimes the best thing said is nothing.
    I feel very privileged to work at O’Connor and help people in their time of need. If it’s to answer a question, to listen to a story or simply give directions it all matters, because they matter.
    Again thank you for the post.

    Amy

    • Dear Amy,

      Thank you for your perspective on this topic. I think that it truly is, like you say, a privilege to support others through their grief.

      Best,
      Marnee

  • Marnie,

    Thank you for preparing my heart, mind and emotions for the losses that will become a part of my life. You confirm, with confidence, all the good things I think about regarding death, grief and loss. Peace Always! Chris

    • Dear Chris,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I wish you all the best.

      Marnee

  • Marnie
    Boy, can I relate! Usually, I feel like I do pretty well, but recently messed up while trying to help a grieving family member I am very close to. What started out as a well meaning comment escalated. My timing was terrible, so the message wasn’t perceived as helpful. All I felt I could do was hang in there, not leave the scene and comfort as best I could so she could be assured of my ultimate love and care for her.

    Thank you for blogging with us! Anne

    • Dear Anne,

      It takes a lot of courage to recognize where you might have done things differently if given the chance to go back in time. And, to “hang in there” as you wrote. You’re an inspiration!

      Marnee