Everyone experiences grief or loss at some point during life, and it’s helpful to know what to say and what not to say to a grieving loved one in order to be as supportive and compassionate as possible.
Grief, as defined by the Grief Recovery Institute, is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of, or change in, a familiar pattern of behavior. While it is most commonly associated with losing a loved one, the experience of grief can also occur after a breakup, divorce, new marriage, after moving or graduating, losing a job, becoming a parent or empty-nester, or any other major life change.
You’re Not Alone
Each of us has experienced pain at some point in our lives, so we can relate when a good friend is suffering. Yet when others face difficult feelings, many of us often have no idea how to compassionately respond in order to give them the love that they need.
Opening up about our deepest and most vulnerable feelings can be very challenging, and that’s why it’s so important to use language which truly nurtures and cares for the feelings of another. Those experiencing grief often say, “No one feels like I feel,” or “If I tell people how I feel, they may think I’m crazy or may not want to be around me.” Even though we have all been through something; a crumbled relationship, losing someone dear, a move, a rejection, etc…. we often feel alone in our painful experiences.
Many of us haven’t been taught how to compassionately relate to the painful feelings of others, or even how to relate to our own. We aren’t given tools as a society to deal with the sad stuff. We are expected to feel good most or all of the time. When someone says, “How are you?” the most common response is “Fine, how are you?” It immediately takes the spotlight off how someone is doing and puts it on the other.
When someone does open up about their challenging experience and has the courage to share their truth, too often they are met with four responses; platitude, quick fix, optimist or story stealer. While these responses are well-meaning, they can hurt, and there are several more compassionate ways to respond instead.
Here Are The Four Most Common Responses To Grief, And Here’s How To Respond With Compassion Instead
A platitude is a remark, especially one with moral content, that has been used too often to be received as interesting or thoughtful. While it can be helpful to say “I’m sorry” when one has done something wrong, many of my clients have shared that “I’m sorry” doesn’t always feel appropriate, and can even imply a guilt that is unneeded, even when the intent is to show sympathy. Other platitudes can be “Good things come to those who wait,” “It was meant to be,” or “Forgive and forget.”
Respond With Empathy Instead
Don’t try to fix your loved one or give them advice. As much as we would like to believe that our advice would instantly heal or comfort their feelings, the most helpful responses come from the heart, not the head. Communicate that you can hear the pain and sadness they are feeling, without telling them what to do. This can sound like, “I can’t imagine what you are going through… please know that you are not alone…” “My heart aches thinking about what you are going through… I wish I could take away the pain…” Simply being there, listening, and also reflecting back the feelings you hear them tell you can be enough to help them feel heard, embraced and loved.
2. Quick Fix
The quick fix is a common response in our society because we are usually geared toward problem-solving. These statements could sound like, “You’ll find someone else” or “You’ll get a new job.”
Acknowledge And Validate Instead
Again, we don’t try to change or fix them. Acknowledging and validating is the best way to show love. This can sound like, “Goodness… I can’t imagine what that is like… How are you handling all of that?” (said with genuine care and curiosity).
It can also be comforting to ask about a range of emotions they might be feeling. As we are able to reflect their feelings in a non-judgmental way, they can feel the relief of being ‘heard.’ “Are you feeling devastated, confused, relieved?” “I can hear how deeply hurt you’re feeling,” We can follow-up with; “That makes sense,” embracing and accepting the fact that all feelings are normal and natural.
The optimist is a sister to the quick fix. While optimism is a healthy practice in life, using optimism as a response to grief can have a person feeling that the depths of their pain were glossed over, unheard or ignored. An example could be trying to make it better by sharing how it could have been worse: “At least you have other children,” “You can get a new dog,” or “Think of all the time you had together…”
Reflect And Validate Instead
When someone says, “I am feeling devastated,” you can say “You’re devastated. That makes sense.” You can also say, “I wish I could make it better, and I know I can’t.”
4. Story “Stealing”
Often when a person is trying to lovingly relate to a person experiencing grief, they say, “I know exactly how you feel” and proceed by telling them their own story of loss or painful change. After years of working with those who are grieving, it is clear that no two losses are the same. Even if it looks the same from the outside, everyone grieves differently. While the intention of sharing one’s story is to help their loved one, comparing their loss can sometimes come across as disrespectful, or even insulting if any measure of the loss is perceived to be different. Just remember… it’s not about you, it’s about them.
Acknowledge Their Uniqueness And Share Common Humanity Instead
This can sound like, “I can’t imagine what you are experiencing…” (pause and let them share). Then, “I recognize that each of our experiences is unique… just know that you are not alone.” By responding in this way, they know they are not isolated in their feelings, and we’ve successfully acknowledged their uniqueness.
As Allison James from the Grief Recovery Institute explains, “When grievers do build up the courage to share their emotions, sympathetic friends usually say, ‘I know how you feel.’ That well-meaning phrase robs grievers of the opportunity to openly share their feelings. . . . Let grievers talk openly and freely without sharing your own experiences, correcting them, or interrupting.”
As you may have noticed, what all of these phrases have in common is that they fall on the “fixing” end rather than on the “acknowledging” end of the spectrum. They’re aimed at trying to make it better, rather than at trying to understand, to embrace or to listen. To show compassion to someone in pain, it’s important that we’re able to help them feel heard, understood, and validated.
We’ve all at one time or another responded with a platitude, a quick fix, as an optimist, or as a story “stealer”. Be compassionate toward yourself; most all of us struggle with finding the “right thing to say.” Remember these four ways to respond and you’ll enable your loved one to truly feel heard.
Here Are A Few More Tips For Responding Compassionately
● Listen deeply.
● Be present.
● Acknowledge the person’s feelings and try to recognize their perspective as what is true for them.
● Validate the person’s experience and let them know they are not alone.
● Be genuinely curious about what he or she is feeling, judgment aside.
● Tell the truth about yourself and sincerely feel with them. For example, “I wish I knew what to say . . . I feel so sad you have to go through this. I’m here.”
● Find the words and body language that feel authentic for you; take a deep breath, nod your head, touch your heart.
If you would like further wonderful tools regarding ‘how to say the right thing when the wrong thing happens,’ please visit laurajack.com to learn more.
Laura Jack is the author of the #1 International Best-Seller The Compassion Code: How to say the right thing when the wrong thing happens. As a Compassionate Leadership Expert, Trainer for the Grief Recovery Institute, Mastery Level Transformational Life Coach, and Speaker, Laura Jack teaches compassionate communication and how we can relate to one another more effectively during the challenging moments in life. Her mission is to cultivate a culture of compassion starting with self. She guides people to be the best version of themselves so they can live and lead with purpose, connection, and compassion.
You are Loved.