How to Talk to People Who Are Grieving

desolation-1308070-639x852A reader emailed me the following question, “I was thinking of you last week wondering if you have a blog post about how to talk to someone who is grieving? I have a few friends in different situations and people just don’t seem to know how to talk to them anymore.”

As someone with firsthand experience with grief, I can tell you that people’s behaviour toward you does indeed change after a negative event. Not everyone changes the way they interact with you, of course, but enough to notice.

I remember one day in particular, a few months after Malcolm died, in which I saw an acquaintance cross the street as soon as he saw me walking toward him on the sidewalk. I know he saw me; he looked right at me and there was a moment of recognition. He chose to avoid dealing with me, a young widow, probably because he had no idea what to say.

I experienced a variation of this sort of thing long after Malcolm’s death. In social situations, people almost looked relieved when they found a way to move past me and avoid an interaction. Conversations, beyond those with a few close friends, became stilted and awkward. It’s almost as though people no longer knew how to begin a conversation with me, and they became visibly uncomfortable if I spoke of my grief. It added to my feeling of isolation.

Of course, we all want to help when someone we know is going through a difficult time, but here’s the thing: It’s hard to know what to say to them, particularly when we don’t know what they need or what they’re feeling. Here are a few suggestions.

Admit your cluelessness

Last March, I went to a funeral for a nineteen-year-old who had taken his own life after dealing with mental illness for a long time. When I saw his father, Tom*, I started to cry. As I hugged him, I told him, “I don’t even know what to say to you, Tom. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”  He responded, “You don’t have to say anything. Your hug means everything.” We held each other, we cried, we shared his grief.

When I was dealing with Malcolm’s loss, the people who touched me the most were those who reached out in honest, open ways. They didn’t know what I was going through, they had no clue what to say to me, but they wanted to reach out nonetheless. And that’s what they told me, just like that: “I don’t know what to say. I’m thinking of you.” In this simple way, they expressed their love and concern, which helped me to feel that I was not alone.

You don’t have to be poetic or even experienced when it comes to your friend’s grief. Just let them know, in your own, simple words, that you’re thinking of them and that you are there. If you feel a temptation to reach for something that’s the verbal equivalent of a pat on the back – “At least you have your children;” or “Of all the cancers to have, at least this one is curable” –  or if you feel the urge to solve their problem – “Here’s what you should do….” – don’t. Such attempts rarely land well.

If you’ve lost a spouse, as I have, you still have no idea what it’s like to lose a child. If you’ve never dealt with cancer personally, you have no clue what that’s like either. We can imagine what it’s like, but we really can’t know unless we’ve been through it ourselves. Admit it up front, and share the fact that you care about the person.

Ask, don’t assume

In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz recommends the following: “Don’t make assumptions. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform you life.” In so doing, you can also transform your experience with people who are grieving.

Let’s consider two examples:

Malcolm’s father, Ron, went through a very difficult time after Malcolm’s death. Most of Ron’s friends stopped mentioning Malcolm’s name when they were around him. This caused Ron a lot of pain. He felt as though the world had already forgotten his son at a time when he was feeling the loss most acutely. I encouraged him to talk to one of his closest friends, in particular, to see why he was doing this. What Ron discovered is that his friend thought that any mention of Malcolm’s name would bring pain, so he avoided it. He hadn’t checked in with Ron to see how he was feeling; he made an assumption. The intention was good, but the outcome was greater distress for Ron.

Now let’s contrast that with Malcolm’s experience. He had cancer from the age of five and therefore he lived with the disease for twenty-five years. When people asked him about his treatments, he would answer politely and then change the subject. Cancer already played a large enough role in his life; the last thing he wanted was to spend his time talking about it. He didn’t avoid the subject by any means, but nor did he want to belabour it. He refused to let the illness define his life. When people kindly inquired, he would bring them up to date and then make it clear that he wanted to move on to his current projects and interests.

Everyone is different. Some people want to talk about the thing that has caused them grief, others don’t. You won’t know until you ask.  And it’s OK to ask. In fact, it’s important to ask. If you’re tempted to make assumptions, ask yourself, “How do I know that? Am I absolutely certain?”

When in doubt, ask.

Accept discomfort

There are a million and one reasons why we might avoid talking to people who are grieving: their grief reminds us of our own; we don’t know what to say or how to approach the subject; we don’t want to cause more pain; we’re uncomfortable being around sad people; we don’t want to be reminded that what happened to them could happen to us – insert your own reason here. The bottom line is that it makes us uncomfortable, and who enjoys discomfort?

We have a choice: We can avoid feeling uncomfortable by steering clear of the person who is grieving, or we can get over it, accept a bit of discomfort and act with empathy. There’s no polite way to say this. The former is an act of selfishness; the latter, an act of empathy and kindness.

There is no growth, as a human being, without some discomfort or work. Which is more important: greater momentary comfort, which may well cause distress to another human being, or momentary personal discomfort in order to offer support to a friend?

Getting past your discomfort is not the end of the world, and once you do it, you might well realize that it wasn’t so hard after all. In the process, you may well help a friend or an acquaintance take a step out of their sadness. That is priceless, particularly if you’re on the receiving end.

Before choosing your behaviour, ask yourself a simple question: How would I want my friends and acquaintances to act if the shoe were on the other foot?

How are you today?

Our first instinct is to ask people, “How are you?” It’s a common conversation opener. The challenge with this phrase is that it puts people who are grieving in a tough spot. Either they tell you that they’re having a hard time, which typically causes conversations to stall, or they tell you a polite lie. Neither is helpful.

Instead of going that route, make it about today. “How are you today?” By doing so, you implicitly convey that you understand the day-by-day nature of grieving. Some days are good, some days are not. That’s to be expected. If they say they’re having a rough day, ask them if they want to talk about it. Remember, don’t make assumptions. Take your cues from them.

You can also offer to help with tasks that might be useful to them:

  • I’m going to mow my lawn today. Would it be helpful if I did yours as well while I’m at it?
  • I’m going to the supermarket. Do you need any groceries? I’d be happy to pick up anything you need while I’m there.
  • Do your kids need a ride to their activities tonight? I can pick them up.
  • I made a big pot of soup. Can I drop some off for you later?
  • We’d love to have you over to dinner. If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine. We’re OK with that.
  • Would you like me to babysit your kids so that you can have some time alone with your spouse?

Whatever you can think of that might be helpful, give it a try. Your friend will doubtless appreciate the fact that you’re reaching out.

I go into much more detail in my book, Protect Your Purse, Shared Lessons For Women: Avoid Financial Messes, Stop Emotional Bankruptcies and Take Charge of Your Money, but this is a start.

I want to leave you with a phrase that my Uncle Lorne uses all the time. When we were last at his house, my daughters protested about going for a long walk because they didn’t feel like making the effort. He just looked at them, smiled and said, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” Every time I try to take the easy way out, I hear his voice saying this to me.

Grieving is a part of being human. We will all have a turn experiencing deep grief for one reason or another. It’s time we got over our discomfort to connect with those around us who are there now.

*Not his real name.

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10 Responses

  1. This is an excellent article that is, unfortunately, needed by all of us at different points in life. Grieving over a death, an illness, a way of life (as has happened for some in this economy). Really, a loss of any kind. Very wise words. Thanks so much for this.

  2. Great advice, especially emphasizing not making assumptions. Just b/c one has had similar grief, it doesn’t mean one has had the *same* grief or is going through the same grief process. That’s one of the reasons grief is so isolating and so lonely: each grief for each person is a unique and individual experience. Support their process, let people know you are there for them (in whatever way is realistic for you), provide consultation if such is wanted. ❤️

    1. That is such a great point Wendy – the “same” grief does not mean the same grief process. Beautifully said. Thanks for sharing that, and the suggestion to be there in a way that is realistic for you. Also important.

  3. Thanks so much for this. Though I am not grieving but dealing with an unwanted diagnosis in my husband, I never thought I would hate being asked “how are you?” so much, mainly because I have to guess at how much the asker really wanted to know about how I am.

    I also have a friend who is grieving the loss of her son, and we talk on video chat quite often. Many times I just sit with her while she cries. In the past, I would have been the person who drops off a casserole and went on with my busy life. Her grieving has taught me what she needs is beyond food and beyond a month after the passing of her loved one.

    1. Tammy, you make a couple of very important points. “How are you?” is a minefield for everyone involved, particularly when the person asking the question doesn’t really want to hear the answer. As for offering support beyond casseroles, I couldn’t agree more. I talk about this in greater detail in my upcoming book; when someone is dealing with a loss, the real pain doesn’t fully set in until one, two or even three months after the death. When most people are getting back to their normal lives, that’s when you can bet the people left behind are feeling the enormity of their loss more acutely than ever.

      It’s such an important topic which deserves a full book, not just a quick blog post. Some day, I might just tackle this properly. In the meantime, thanks so much for sharing what you’ve learned through your experience.

  4. Hi Doris, this is a really great article. There are so many layers of grief and everyone reacts to it differently & at different times. There is no real manual on how it’s best to grieve. You just need to find a focus when you are ready & go with it. Don’t worry what everyone else may think of how you are dealing with it. Like you said in your article sometimes just a hug is all that’s needed. 🙂

    I’ve shared your article with someone very special who is going through a tough time right now, hope she finds something helpful to her here 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Alexia. Your reminder to not worry about what everyone else thinks of your approach or “progress” with grief is an important one. I hope this helps your friend.

    1. That’s a form of loss as well. As part of the research for my book, I interviewed 25 divorcees. The trauma they faced is every bit as real as that of the widows. The challenge, in this case, is that the dissolution of a relationship can cause problems with shared friendships. I’m happy to share what I know if you clarify your question. I’m not sure from whose perspective you’re approaching this.

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