What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

When we meet a friend or loved one in grief we want to be understanding, we want to say the right thing.

If I meet a person who is hurting I try to be responsive and recognise the significance of their loss.

But I’m sure there have been times when my words proved inadequate and the grieving person felt let down.

It isn’t easy to respond appropriately to a person wrestling with grief. I’ve yet to find a set of guidelines guaranteeing success.

There are several factors that add to the complexity of this challenge.

Firstly, people respond to loss differently.

Grief counsellor David Kessler says,

“There is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.”

Everyone will confront times of suffering from grief and loss. Loss can be both devastating and diverse. Every loss is unique and personal. This applies to grief as well. The way you grieve is a reflection of who you are. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.

Secondly, people’s response to loss changes over time.

A person grieving the loss of a friend or loved one to suicide will experience a variety of emotions including guilt, anger, shame, rejection, loneliness, sadness and abandonment. There will be fluctuations in the intensity of their grief. It will be unpredictable. It won’t follow a linear progression. It will last a lifetime.

The process of assimilating the loss will be gradual and there will be setbacks. The complexity of your life will overwhelm you. You will struggle to accommodate your grief, not knowing how to afford it the respect it is due.

Providing support to people who are suffering requires sensitivity. It is important to avoid giving the impression we have all the answers. We don’t.

Sensitivity is needed:
– to monitor the needs of the grieving person
– to offer targeted support
– to know what to say and what not to say

It can be tempting to avoid those who have experienced loss. We may believe we’re ill-equipped to offer help or we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing and making matters worse.

Author and Counsellor James P. Krehbiel says,

“Your attitude and compassion are more important than the words that are spoken.”

We all want to communicate in a positive manner. We want to offer compassion and concern to the bereaved. But we need to be intentional in what we say. We need to think about it. We need to plan it. It is not an occasion for spontaneity. Sometimes our words have unintended consequences.

There are two responses I have found difficult and unhelpful. I confess I have said the same thing on occasions so I am not being judgmental. They seem harmless but place an added and unnecessary burden on the grieving person.

1. “How are you?”

It is a simple enquiry but it presents the grieving person with a dilemma.

Is it a question that can be answered honestly? How much information do I want to share? How will the questioner cope if I dump on them my hurts and fears and burst into tears?

Or is the questioner hoping to hear that everything is getting better, the pain is easing, and you are no longer haunted by the thought your loved one took their life?

2. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

It is a phrase that has become something of a cliché. It may communicate that you care or it may not. It may be something you say to avoid embarrassment. It may be a way of fulfilling an obligation without having to do anything.

It isn’t a phrase that encourages engagement. It leaves the grieving person feeling isolated as the loss is their loss and they must carry the weight of that loss alone. It is painful.

Let us now consider five things you could say when a friend or loved one is grieving.

1. I was saddened to hear about the death of………….  How are you coping with your loss?

By connecting with their loss you are giving the grieving person the freedom to talk about their sorrow. This is  liberating whereas silence is debilitating. It imprisons.

2. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to face these days without………. What are you finding difficult to manage?

One of the worst things you can say is “you know; you understand; you get it; you’ve been there.”

The reality is “you don’t know; you have no idea; you couldn’t possibly comprehend; your experience is not my experience.”

You don’t know but you are willing to learn. Our humility gives the grieving person permission to own their sadness and talk about their struggles.

3. I’m sorry but I can’t think of anything to say to ease your loss. It must be incredibly difficult to lose someone you love to suicide/cancer/an accident?

Letting a grieving person know you are aware of the emotional difficulty of the situation can help them feel less isolated.

4. I didn’t know ………. particularly well. When you are ready I would like to talk to you about him/her. I do have one special memory I would like to share.

Talking about the person who died, speaking their name, honouring their existence, is healing to the grieving person. You are giving the person they love in life and in death humanity and identity.

Author Nancy Guthrie gives this timely advice. She says,

“Keep on saying the name of the person who died. It is music to the grieving person’s ears.”

5. I don’t know what you’re dealing with, but I am here to help in any way I can. If you need someone to be with you while you……………… I’m here.

Grief can leave people feeling alone. Telling them that you love them and are there for them reminds them they are not without support.

It can be difficult for a grieving person to ask for help. There are many reasons for this, such as having no energy or motivation to ask for help.

If you want to help and support a friend or family member who is grieving take the initiative and make specific suggestions.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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