It can be a difficult thing to know what to say when you are speaking with someone whose loved one has recently passed away. You can feel tongue-tied and reach out for those little sentences that you may have heard other people say in the hope of bringing comfort.
But there are 3 things that are NOT helpful to the person in the middle of their pain and grief…
1.“I know exactly how you feel”
Let’s stop and think before this sentence rolls out. Each of us has a different relationship with death and dying, and the person who has passed away. The experience, intensity and process of grief and loss varies greatly. We do not know how they feel, but we can be of great comfort by listening, really listening. Hearing about their feelings, being ok with the tears and letting them know you care is the most helpful thing you can do.
We can think we are empathising to help them feel they are not alone, but saying you know how they feel is not helpful and it often leads to…
2. “My Mum/Dad passed away x years ago…”
Ok – stop right there! In just about every instance this is where the conversation gets hijacked to talk about you, your feelings, your relationship, your suffering x many years ago. The person in front of you, who is grieving, now has to listen to your story and empathise with your feelings of loss! Talking about an experience you had can feel like you are being understanding and compassionate, but take care not to turn it into a conversation about your experience of loss.
3. “At least they had a good innings”
Sometimes we hear that a friend’s parent or grandparent has passed away. Often, due to feeling awkward or uncomfortable, or not knowing what else to say, we will ask how old the person was. While that’s ok, the temptation to repeat the above chestnut can be great. Don’t do it! Your friend will not be comforted knowing that you think that was enough years for that person to have lived. It doesn’t help them feel better. Instead, you could ask them if they think the person had a good life, or ask if the person had been in pain or suffering with an illness. Perhaps reminisce with them about how much change they must have seen in the years since that person was born. Just don’t minimise the pain of grief your friend is feeling by declaring their loved one had enough time here on the planet.
Yes, it can be awkward. It can be confronting to talk about death and dying. It brings up issues of mortality, spirituality, fear and the unknown. But make sure you don’t avoid talking about it, as it is part of the healing process to acknowledge that their loved one has died. Don’t be afraid to bring it up because you think it may cause the person more pain. For your friend it is important and comforting that you offer your condolences and let them know you care.
When you are speaking with someone who has lost a loved one, the important thing is to put aside your own feelings of awkwardness or discomfort. Listen, and be present with the person in front of you.
It really is ok not to know what to say and that can actually be a great, honest starting point – “I’m so sorry to hear that and I really don’t know what to say. Are you ok? Can I help you in any way?”
Hear their individual story of grief and loss, or simply hold them while they cry.
You can’t fix it, but you can be of great comfort by giving the gift of your compassion and by being there to listen, acknowledge and validate their feelings.
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Vanessa Steele: counsellor, mum, partner, blogger... listening and learning every day.