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The Language of Bereavement – Part 2

Published: May 3, 2017

“What Should I Say?” - The Language of Bereavement –

Part 2: Choosing Words that Are Helpful

In Part 1 of this blog, I pointed out that:

We learn about loss informally through observing our families and surrounding culture.
Our learning does not prepare us well for dealing with loss.       It emphasizes an intellectual approach which tends to avoid or dismiss the hard emotions of bereavement.
What grieving people need most is to be listened to and heard.
With that background, what can we learn more specifically about helpful versus unhelpful language?

First, let’s look at what is not helpful.


UNHELPFUL Language …

Offers a Fix
Offering some fix or simple solution to grief is often heard by the griever as a dismissal of their feelings. They may withdraw as a response. Secondly, the simple fixes are of only short term benefit. Staying busy, for example may temporarily cover sorrow. It does nothing to resolve it.

Intellectualizes / Spiritualizes
Observations of simple fact, such as “she had a good long life” or of faith, such as “he’s at home with the Lord” may reflect truth or shared belief but don’t address the emotions. The griever may be hopeful of feeling better, then confused when they don’t. While great peace of mind may come from fact and faith, the emotional pain of grief needs something more. The griever may agree and be grateful that their loved-one had a good long life, but still feel a huge empty place in their heart.

Compares & Minimizes
We sometimes make comparisons between degrees of loss. If I say, “at least you knew in advance and could prepare,” I’m suggesting that you shouldn’t feel as bad as someone who experienced a sudden, unexpected loss. Though the different circumstances are real, the comparison isn’t helpful. It’s just another form of intellectual observation which fails to acknowledge the unique emotions associated with each loss.

De-Personalizes (“I know how you feel”)
When we have experienced a similar loss to that of a friend, the death of a parent for example, we may believe that we know how the other person feels. In fact, we really can’t know. Every relationship is unique and therefore every loss event is unique. My friend’s relationship with their father may have been very different than mine with my father. What they’re going through in bereavement is likely quite different than what I did. Telling another “I know how you feel,” though intended to provide a comforting identification, overlooks their unique experience. They may feel just the opposite of what I intended, i.e. not understood.

So, this is some of the unhelpful language we often use or hear. Now, besides a genuine expression of condolence, how can we be more helpful?

HELPFUL Language …

 Needs to be “re”-Learned
Sorry, bad news. If you’re anything like me, you will need to learn a new approach to talking about loss. This begins with how we think about our own losses and will include learning to listen honestly to our own feelings. This is an important topic on its’ own.

Invites the Griever’s Story
A survey by the Grief Recovery Institute® revealed that what is wanted most by grieving people is an opportunity to talk about what happened and their relationship with the deceased. When our first words following a genuine expression of condolence are words like “what happened?” we are extending an invitation to the griever to talk. This may come as a surprise to them, so we might need to wait quietly for a reply. Then it’s important that we have the time to listen. It may be a long story. We should not ask the question if we’re not able to give the gift of time and a listening ear.

Acknowledges the Other’s Pain
When we have severe physical pain, part of receiving the legitimate care we need is expressing to others the type of pain we’re experiencing. This is not a ploy for receiving unfair, special attention. There is a genuine need to be heard so appropriate help can be offered. There is a similar need for emotional pain to be expressed and understood. A statement like “That’s got to hurt!” made to someone who’s had a significant loss lets them know they’ve been heard. As we listen carefully to a friend’s story we can paraphrase back to them what they’re telling us, such as “You feel completely alone now.” Just knowing that there is someone who “gets it” is a huge benefit to them.

Affirms Uniqueness  
Rather than “I know how you feel,” saying something like “I can’t imagine what that would be like” is helpful as it acknowledges the individuality of that person’s grief. While it’s true that we all experience the pain of various losses, it’s not comforting to a griever to simply be reminded of how common their experience is. Rather than observing “Now you, Mary and Jane have all lost their husbands “, a more supportive recognition of unique loss would be “Your world is so different now without Jim.

I hope these few thoughts are helpful. I’ve tried to pinpoint some of the most common don’ts and dos of bereavement conversation. Feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences.

Here’s a simple 4-point guide to consider for the next time you find yourself face to face with a hurting friend.

  1. Ask What Happened.
  2. Allow Them Time to Talk
  3. Acknowledge Their Pain
  4. Avoid Offering Advice 

For some more thoughts on this topic go to:

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