Speaking Grief: How to respond when someone in your life loses someone they love
by Shana Rubenstein
I have had the privilege of being a social work intern at the Christi Center since September. In this role, I have had learned from individuals of all ages grieving the death of loved ones. After a few months of assisting with adult and teen meetings, I began to notice a common theme among the groups, from individuals who were grieving the loss of a sibling or friend, to those who had lost their parent or child. Between all of the groups, it seemed that many people shared the experience of hearing unintentionally hurtful or thoughtless comments from others in their community – friends, coworkers, and family who responded, often in the best manner they knew how, in ways that minimized, disrespected, or even worsened their pain.
Another shared experience was secondary loss, those who reported good friends or family who seemed to disappear in the midst of their grief – perhaps from fear of saying the wrong thing or difficulty in understanding the longevity of grief. Many people may avoid those in grief because they do not want to be reminded of the presence of death in all of our lives. What these experiences have in common is that people who are already in emotional pain are further hurt because our culture does not teach us how to respond to others in times of grief.
Thinking all of this over, I decided to collect the thoughts of people experiencing grief about what they wish others knew, what they would like others to say, and what they would be grateful to never hear again. This information will be available in an image and video form, to be easily shared with friends and family, but I can also share with you some of the responses I received.
In terms of what people in grief want those in their community to know, the number one response was that it is OK, and hoped for, that people will bring up the person who died. While many people may fear this will make the person in grief feel sadder or cry, people of all ages reported that they are already sad, and talking about their loved one let’s them know that they are not forgotten. It’s OK if they cry, their grief is making them sad, and you are giving them a space to remember. People who are in grief also want you to know that grief does not end, and that it is not something that can be gotten over. It changes with time, and can be lived with, but as one mother shared, “Grief doesn’t stop, it changes but never ends.” Losing someone central to your life changes you in different ways, and people in grief wish that others would spend time getting to know the “new me” instead of waiting for the old me to return.
There are a number of comments that people hear repeatedly that feel hurtful and insensitive: “You need to move on.” “I understand exactly how you feel.” “They are in a better place.” While these may sound to the person speaking like comforting words, in fact they make the person who is grieving feel as if others do not understand their very real pain. Two responses had mixed results – some people preferred the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss,” while others felt that it put them in an awkward position of saying “Thank you” or “It’s OK.” Teens in particular often do not want to hear that others are sorry. Additionally, the question “How are you?” is a hard one after the death of a loved one. As one mom who lost her daughter shared; “‘How are you?’ is hard because usually they don’t want the real answer… terrible or crappy. I prefer to be asked, ‘How are you feeling today?’ It’s better when they’re open to hearing the real answer. If not, just don’t ask.”
Unfortunately, something I think very few of us realize is that there is nothing that can be said that solves grief. The best we can hope for it to respond in a way that shows our respect, love, and ongoing support. When asked what they wish people would say or do, responses included
“I am here to support you.” – Anon.
“Tell me about your daughter.” – Susan and Ron B.
“I miss your son too.” – Melanie H.
“Can we get together to take a walk or share a meal? I needed to talk to people who could just listen. They didn’t need to have any answers or profound insights.” – Mary G.
“‘I don’t know what to say.’ Then I could tell them that it’s OK. Just being silent and sitting with me is very helpful. Just saying ‘I’m here for you’ and ‘I love you’ is all I really need to hear.” – Frankie H.
When we are in the position of responding to someone in grief, the focus often zeroes in on ourselves – how to say or do the right thing. Instead, we can consider how to demonstrate our support, whether that’s sitting together, bringing food or taking care of errands, remembering loved one on birthdays, holidays, or anniversaries, and knowing that grief doesn’t end and that people often like to share about those they love, whether it’s one month or ten years later.
At the Christi Center, we have a metaphor: People in grief frequently feel like zebras in a pack of horses – they are different, changed from those around them, but the horses either don’t see their stripes or don’t know how to interact. Zebras need to spend time together, to be in a space of mutual understanding and unconditional support, and that is why places like the Christi Center exist. However, the sense of isolation and compounded pain can be lessened if all the horses can see, and respond with care, to those among us who are walking through the forest of grief.
Other resources that may be helpful to you, your family, or your neighborhood schools:
- Speaking from personal experience, the authors share ways to support others and get support for yourself when someone close to you is dealing with trauma (in this case, a cancer diagnosis), by giving comfort – and not advice – to those directly affected, and seeking your own support for complaints or difficulties elsewhere: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407
- The Coalition to Support Grieving Students (http://grievingstudents.scholastic.com/peer-support/) offers great suggestions of how to respond to youth who are grieving, including some specific advice about what not to say and why: http://grievingstudents.scholastic.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/NYL-1B-What-to-Say.pdf
- Judi’s House, a grief support center in Colorado, offers suggestions for supporting children and teens who have lost a loved one to suicide: http://www.judishouse.org/index.php?s=11560&item=5388
- The Dougy Center, a national center for grieving children and families, has a wealth of resources, and specifically shares here how to support grieving teens: http://www.dougy.org/grief-resources/how-to-help-a-grieving-teen/
- New York Life offers some personal stories and practical suggestions for helping youth and families after the death of a loved one: http://www.newyorklife.com/newyorklife.com/General/FileLink/Static%20Files/NYLF%20KIDS%20Brochure%20FINAL%
- What’s Your Grief offers grief support and information in a modern, relatable way: http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/
Many thanks to all who contributed their thoughts and ideas to this project!
Rachel R, Olivia A, Susan and Ron B, Steve N, Arron C, Ed T, Melanie H, Doon R, Mary G, Frankie H, many other individuals who contributed anonymously, Kids Who Kare participants, Small Middle School participants, and the interns and staff at the Christi Center who helped to collect surveys!