Many readers expressed their anguish and frustration at not knowing how to offer even some small comfort and it sparked a discussion among us about what to say to someone who is grieving.
This post is by family therapist and bereavement specialist Dr Gloria Horsley whose own son died aged 17.
Recently, I was scheduled to be a guest on an early morning radio broadcast from Bakersfield, California.
I am a family therapist, bereaved parent and president of Open To Hope, the bereavement organisation with a mission of “Helping People Find Hope After Loss”.
Grief and recovery are topics the media avoids and I am happy when a radio program is willing to talk about the subject.
Theresa, the woman who called me to book the show, suggested the topic: “What to say and what not to say to people who have had a loss.”
My spot is prerecorded and three minutes long. Not much time to discuss such an important subject.
I woke up early, went downstairs, sat at my desk and jotted down some thoughts on what seems like a lifetime away.
I revisited my 17 year-old son’s death, and pondered what people said or did that was helpful and not so helpful.
I recalled silly statements like, “You now have an angel in Heaven” or blaming statements like, “Were they wearing safety belts?” or “Had they been drinking?” Yes, to the safety belts and no to the drinking.
One lady came to the wake and informed me with a twinkle in her eye that, “Scott appeared to me last night and said he was fine”. I thought the statement was strange as I was sure that if he appeared to anyone it would be me.
The phone rang at 6:20 a.m. I snapped up the receiver so I wouldn’t wake the rest of the family. It was Jeff from News Talk Radio — nice voice and nice man.
We exchanged pleasantries. “Sorry,” says Jeff. “Wish we had more time; this is an important topic”. Click…we start to record.
Jeff starts, “Dr. Horsley isn’t it true that people grieve differently?” I say, “Yes, that is true but there is also some commonality in that grieving comes in waves and is very stressful.”
Jeff quickly moves on, “So, Dr. Horsley what are the things that people say that are helpful and not helpful after a loss?”
Jeff then quickly mentions the fact that his sister died from a brain tumor. I wanted to tell him how sorry I am about his loss, but no time. We must stay on topic. I thank God for blogging and the Internet.
So Jeff, in this blog I want to tell you and all of you who have suffered a loss how sorry I am about your loss and congratulate you for the good you are doing through your willingness to address this topic so early in the morning.
For those who are taking the time to read this blog, these are some of the things that Heidi and I found not helpful and some that we found helpful after the death of our son/brother, Scott and his cousin Matthew.
What NOT to say to a grieving person:
1. “You will never get over it” – This comment really drove me crazy as it always felt so condescending and minimizing, and how do you respond? I didn’t want to get over my son’s and his cousin’s death, yet I wanted to move on be strong again and hopeful. But I did want to get over the hurt. I now realize that true I have “never gotten over it” but with time and work I have transcend the pain and suffering and have again found joy.
2. “They are the first things you will think of every morning” – This was a comment made by my husband’s secretary at Scott’s funeral. True, Scott being killed in an automobile accident was the first thing I thought of every morning for a while. And then, as time went on, I noticed that I started giving equal thought to my three living daughters and now my ten grandchildren.
3. “It wasn’t meant to be” – This is very fatalistic. How does anyone know what was meant to be. Someday when we join our loved ones we will know all the answers or not.
4. “You’re young…you can marry again” – I know that this comment drives widowers crazy. That special person will always be a part of your life.
5. “You can have another child” – Again, people are not replaceable. Our loved ones are unique and fill a special place in our lives.
6. “Maybe God is trying to teach you something” – Now this must be a really crazy God if he/she wants us to suffer. I just can’t buy this kind of a God.
7. “You must move on” – Who says? It is your life and people move and change when they are ready. As a therapist I always try to remember, “don’t want more for people than they want for themselves.”
8. “They had a good life” – My sorrow is not about their “good life”…it is how I will construct a life without them.
9. “Be thankful you have other children” – As if I wasn’t thankful for my living children. Our special children can never be replaced but that doesn’t stop us from having a unique and special place in our hearts for each and every child that comes into our lives.
10. “Be strong for your parents” – This comment really bothered Scott’s sisters, Heidi, Rebecca and Heather, because they felt that it discounted their loss.
So how can you provide some comfort to someone going through hell? Here are some helpful things to say or do for a grieving person:
1. Show up. – I use to send a card and now I send myself. My friend Sally showed up at our house before our first dinner alone, brought a book, and just read while we ate. It was very comforting.
2. Do a kindness. – Friends mowed my lawn and took the kids to movies.
3. Answer the telephone and take notes. – We had dozens of casseroles, walls of flowers, and random gifts and without careful notes taken by friends we would have had no idea of what to do with the empty dishes or who to thank.
4. Be willing to sit down and listen. – This is important, as people often get anxious when confronted with grief and have difficulty being silent when those in grief talk. I needed to tell my story over and over in order for the enormity of my loss to become a reality.
5. Ask how they are really feeling. – Don’t ask this question unless you are willing to take some time to listen. You feel dropped when people ask you to dig deep and then look at their watch.
6. Don’t try to be profound. – This advice was given to me by a very insightful priest. Just showing up and sitting with grievers is profound.
7. Be patient learning to live again takes time. – Friends and family don’t like to see you suffer and they really do want you to get on with life. They want you to be the person you were prior to the loss. They don’t want to hear the reality that you will never be the same but will have to find a “new normal”.
This post was originally published here and has been republished with full permission.
Dr. Gloria Horsley MFC CNS Ph.D. is the Founder and President of the Open to Hope Foundation the world’s largest multi media web based resource for the bereaved. Gloria is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent.