What to Say?

crying  angel, figure on  Ixelles Cemetery (French:   CimetiereDear Kelly: I read your column on listening. However, sometimes one just must say something. What are the appropriate words to say when someone is grieving?

Dear Reader: Sometimes it is really hard to say just the right words to a person who is grieving. It can tend to be an awkward moment for both parties involved. The person who isn’t grieving stumbles around and tries to find something they think won’t offend the grieving person. This isn’t surprising since we aren’t taught how to grieve or to help a grieving person. At Beyond Indigo many of our grieving members talk about the words that are not helpful. One of our volunteers, Jim, lost his son two years ago and this is what he says about certain pat phrases people have given him and his feelings about these sayings.

“He (She) is with God!”  I am sure that is the case, but they shouldn’t be with God; they should be here with us.

“They are in a better place.”  Sorry, but there is no better place for them to be than in our loving arms.

“It was for the best.”  (I am sure that people with a sick child has heard this one way too many times.) In reality,  I think my child should have been healthy with nothing to worry about and should be outside playing and having fun at this minute.

“We know how you feel.”  That only works if you have been through my exact situation.

“It will be all right.”  I am sorry, but that train left the tracks the day our children left this earth.

“How are you doing?”  Bet me that they really don’t want to know and if they do you had better make sure they stay your friend.  The answer “Fine.”  Has become my pat answer.

So what does a person say that would be appropriate during those awkward moments? What will get your concern and sympathies across to the grieving person? There are a few things you can say that many people find helpful:

Repeat what they have said in a different way: For example when a person says words such as, ” I am in pain”, “I can’t stop crying”, “I miss him/her so much”, you can say “You really sound like you are in pain and hurting terribly.” People will feel like they have been heard.

Call it as you see it.: Often we love to ignore the elephant sitting in the living room. It is okay to say,  “I can see your loss is causing you pain”. Or you can say things like, “You don’t look so well. Are you eating anything? Getting some sleep? Have you thought about seeing a specialist who can keep an eye on you while you are grieving? Or  “I can tell you are missing your loved one.”

Tell stories of the person: People want to talk about their loved one and remember them. Many people enjoy hearing other people’s memories of the person. This is especially true after the funeral when the world continues and yet they are left with their loss.

Words are powerful. Helping a grieving person is a learned skill, and takes practice. But most importantly we can show our sympathy. Focus on genuinely listening to the person and asking questions that reflect you care. This is not the time for ‘pat’ responses, but honest feelings expressed with care.


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