A 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.
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.