What should I say to a grieving person?
Many of us are not used to broaching the topic of death and grief. When attempting to be a source of comfort for a grieving person, we often panic: "What should I say? What should I do? What if I say something that makes it worse?"
Well, fret no more! This article is here to help you.
On 31 July, Before Beyond held its first live dialogue with three guest speakers - Seline, Calvin, and Adalie - in an event supported by Groundup Central. (You may remember Seline as the author of the article mentioned in this post!)
During the dialogue, the speakers shared their personal experiences with grief and discussed the words and actions that brought comfort during the difficult times.
Why do people find it difficult to talk to someone about grief?
No template to model after
Ever since we were children, we learned things by observing the people around us. Our thoughts and actions are shaped by the experiences that we have.
When the people around us do not talk about death, it is only natural that we ourselves struggle to talk about the subject.
"Because I Love You" by Singapore Hospice Council is a short story about the relationship between a mother and daughter starting the conversation about death
However, things are changing. Increasingly, people are recognising the importance of being allowed to grieve well and want to be a source of support for others who have lost a loved one. We just lack the exposure of doing so.
No experience with losing a loved one
The lack of personal experience with death may lead a person to feel unqualified to offer advice. They may struggle to understand the grieving process and feel unsure about the support it requires.
If you belong to the younger age groups, there is a high chance that you (and the people in your social circle) have not experienced death of a loved one.
Fearful of opening a can of worms and not being able to handle it
Many people panic when they see someone overcome with emotions as they are not sure how to handle it. They fear saying or doing something that causes more harm or may worry that their actions would harm their relationship with the person.
Facing your own unresolved grief
Last but not least, people who find it difficult to talk to a grieving person may be barely coping with their own personal grief. Speaking about the subject may trigger some of their own unpleasant or traumatic memories that they have not yet been able to resolve.
What is the end-point of the conversation about grief?
The ideal end-point of talking about grief is not to resolve the feelings of grief. A common misconception is that grief completely resolves after enough time. However, in reality, grief never disappears.
In Dr Lois Tonkin's model of grief, she describes how people expect grief to shrink over time when in reality, the grief remains the same - we simply grow around it.
Grief takes us to places and transforms us in unimaginable ways. Although grief is a painful experience, it is also an opening to immense personal growth. Grief hurts deeply because our love goes just as deep.
In Tonkin's model of grief (1996), Dr Tonkin describes how people expect grief to shrink over time when in reality, the grief remains the same - we simply grow around it.
The end-point in the conversation about grief is to achieve connection. It is not about avoiding the tears, not about elevating someone's mood, and most definitely not about finding a solution.
"The truth is: rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection." -- Dr Brené Brown
It is about understanding the depths of the despair and all the things that comes with it - regret, guilt, anger, hopelessness. It is the recognition of the impact that death has on the their loved ones. It is about acknowledging and treasuring the relationship that the grieving person shared with the deceased.
Dr Brené Brown, a researcher on empathy, shares about the difference between empathy and sympathy and offer suggestions on how you can provide effective support to people in need
Don't be too disheartened if you find yourself at a lost of words or if you feel unsatisfied with how the conversation ended. Even seasoned professionals can struggle to find the words to say.
Take time to process how things went. Its always alright to check-in some time later with, "Hey, I've thought more about what you said earlier. I spent some time thinking about it and trying to put myself in your shoes and I realised that ..."
The conversation about grief does not have to be completed in a single session, in fact, most of the time, it takes place in multiple settings at various points in the grief journey.
How to hold a conversation about grief
A frequently asked question was how to start, continue and end a conversation about grief in a sensitive and empathic manner.
Here are some suggestions on the phrases that you can use during your conversation and some tips on how you can troubleshoot during the conversation itself:
How to begin the conversation
Open-ended questions are usually the best way to start the conversation because it allows room for the person who is grieving to answer in a manner that is comfortable for them.
Depending on their readiness to talk about the matter and the closeness of their relationship with you, their answers could range from a few words like "I'm okay" to a very detailed account of their problems.
Examples of these questions include:
"I can imagine that this must be a difficult time for you. Would you like to talk about it? If you do, please know that I would like to be there for you."
"I heard that (insert name of person) has passed away. I am not sure how you are feeling. How have you been?"
"I am so sorry to hear about your loss. What have things been like for you? It's ok if you are not ready to share right now. But I want to you know that if you ever need someone to talk to, I will be here for you.
How to continue the conversation
As the person continues to share about their grief, the person may talk about feelings and events that you have not experienced before or share about dilemmas they are facing.
Even though you may not completely feel for the loss in the same way that the grieving person does, it is always ok to admit this and reaffirm that you are committed to trying to understand their situation.
These are some of the reactions that people can have in response to an unexpected or expected death. Find out more about the different types of grief in this article.
Some strategies that can help you continue the conversation include:
Naming the emotion: What do you think the person describing? Is is shock? Regret? Guilt?
Reflecting and clarifying: "It seems that you are frustrated at your relatives for placing additional responsibilities on your shoulders because they don't seem to recognise that you are hurting as well. But you also feel guilty for lashing at out them because you know it's not completely their fault - am I understanding you correctly?"
Asking about the basic things: Sometimes intense emotional stress can manifest in strange and unexpected ways. Ask about whether they are eating or sleeping well. Ask about how they have been spending their time over the past few days. Grief is expected to be prominently featured at major milestones, such as the funeral, cremation or burial, but the grief that manifests in daily, routine life is potentially more painful and debilitating and often neglected.
Remember to rotate amongst these strategies so that you do not sound repetitive!
How to (temporarily) end the conversation
When the conversation starts to run dry (or someone has to rush off), it is time to start thinking about proper closure.
You could acknowledge specific challenges they face or affirm the effort that they have put in:
"I can only imagine how painful it must be for you to be reminded everyday of how empty the house feels now that he is no longer around."
"I am glad to hear that you are taking time to process everything you are going through and that you are finding it meaningful to spend time alone."
You could also thank them for trusting you with the things they have shared:
"Thank you for sharing what you did and allowing me to be here for you. I am so sorry that you had to go through all of these."
Reassure them that they can contact you if they need your support. You could also check on how they are coping after a couple of days or weeks.
Take note of significant dates like anniversaries, birthdays, and special days (such as Mother's day, Father's Day, Children's Day) - grief can suddenly become more intense during these periods.
How to troubleshoot
During the pauses of the conversation, take a moment to ask yourself how you think the conversation is going to check if you are on the right track.
Assess their responses
If they are sharing more (with or without prompts), it likely means that you are going in a great direction.
If they start to clam up and reply stiffly, it could mean that they are not ready to talk about it or that you have inadvertently said something that did not sit too well with them. You could try one of these:
"I'm sorry if I said anything that made things worse for you."
"If I am saying anything that causes you more pain or offended you, do let me know."
"If you are not ready to talk about it, please let me know. I don’t want to cause more pain, I just want to be a friend that you can rely on. If there is anything you need, just give a shout out."
What to do if someone cries
Pro tip: always carry tissue paper, wet tissue, and extra face masks with you.
Breathing through a wet and gooey mask is extremely uncomfortable. A simple gesture such as offering a crying person a brand new face mask can really warm hearts.
It is extremely important to recognise that crying is an outlet for intense emotion and that it is okay to let the person cry it all out. (Read more about the utility of tears in this article.)
Most of the time, simply being present in the moment is more than enough. You could help to make the environment more comfortable for them by getting a cup of water and some squishy pillows and by shooing curious onlookers away.
Depending on your level of closeness with the person and whether you think the other person is receptive to physical touch, you could consider holding their hand or placing a hand on their shoulder. However, if you are not sure whether the grieving person appreciates physical contact, do ask first! It will not be pleasant for both parties if the person has to suddenly and awkwardly shirk away from your attempts to comfort.
Other non-verbal means of providing support
If you prefer not to say too much, there are also other way in which you can show support to a person who is grieving.
Sometimes, simply sharing the same space is therapeutic by itself. No one should feel the pressure to fill every bit of silence with noise.
Occasionally, some people who have just lost a loved one may be tired and frustrated with all the advice that people are giving them and they may just want a safe space for them to do what they want to do without being asked to reflect on their feelings all the time.
You could also offer to do activities with them like visit a place that holds a significant meaning for them or help them try to perfect a dish that reminds them of their loved one (or be the guinea pig that gobbles up the food).
The way to a person's heart is through their bellies! It is not uncommon for a grieving person to neglect their personal well-being. Offer to deliver some yummy food and drinks to their house (but do check beforehand that their fridges aren't already full from other people sending over food).
Other meaningful gifts
Some people find new insights on how to process their grief through reading books and/or poetry. Some people find it useful to distract themselves with new gardening tools or by doing art (colour by number) - be creative!
What are some of the things to avoid?
Do not avoid or ignore the matter
Ignoring the topic of grief only makes the grieving person feel that their grief is insignificant and that their loss is not real.
Do not be too quick to offer solutions
Society conditions us to find solutions to every problem. When you offer a solution without taking the time to fully understand the entire issue, you put yourself at risk of providing ineffective help that only serves to push the person further away from you.
An negative example:
Person A: "I am finding it difficult to focus on work while handling my emotions."
Person B: "Oh! You should just take a break from work! Why aren't you on leave yet?"
A positive example:
Person A: "I am finding it difficult to focus on work while handling my emotions."
Person B: "What are some of the ways you have tried to cope with the situation?"
Person A: "I have thought taking leave from work. But I only have a limited number of leave left. I worry that if I use up all my leave now, there will be no avenue for me to take leave in the future if I have another grief flare. If I need to take no-pay leave in the future, there will be no one bringing in an income for the family. I don't want my children to worry about our finances. I think I can still handle work at the moment. It's just that it gets hard sometimes.
Person B: "It sounds that you have thought a lot about it and decided that remaining at work is the better option! What are some of the things at work that trigger your emotion - perhaps we can try to tackle those?"
Often, problems run much deeper than what they seem to be on the surface. Don't make assumptions and jump to conclusions - this might make the other person feel misunderstood or give them the impression that you are brushing aside the attempts they have already made to solve their own problems.
Sometimes, they might not actually be looking for solution and may just want to let out their problems.
Immediately start talking about your own experiences
When someone shares about their grief, its not always the right time and place for you to share about your own grief.
In Tilak Mandadi's TED Talk "3 ways companies can support grieving employees" (read more about coping with grief in the workplace), he shares about his experiences coping with the horrific and violent death of his daughter.
When he returned to work, a colleague had come up to him and said "I understand your loss. My dog died last year." (He then subsequently had to console this very distraught colleague.)
Although the colleague had come from a place of good intentions, it could be perceived as offensive by some to compare the death of one person (or animal) to another.
When trying to support someone else, it is important to focus on the other person's needs and why this grief hurts them in whatever way it does.
Hear them out first. After exploring their grief universe with them, if you think that offering your personal experiences will help, test the waters and see how they respond to it: "Actually... two years ago, I lost my mother to cancer too. I know that grief cannot be compared and we face different challenges... but I just want you to know that you are not alone if you ever feel lost in this space."
If you are someone who is grieving...
Forgive the people around you if they make mistakes (and forgive yourself)
It is not easy to tend to grief wounds. Often, people don't intend to cause harm but unintentionally hurt you with their actions or words.
Forgive yourself for holding a grudge against them. Then, when you are ready, try to forgive them - they may not have known how much the death meant to you and how they could have responded to it.
It is ok to gravitate toward people whom you think can support you better
Even though people try their best, they may not always be the support that we need. Some friends may be great at facilitating deep discussions on death and pain and loss and existentialism - but if what you need is just distraction, it alright to choose to spend more time with people who can help you get your mind off things.
It is alright to tell your friends that their company is not what you need at that point in time - but do reassure them that you treasure their friendship dearly and that you will get back to them when you are ready!
The art of tending to grief wounds is complex because everyone experiences grief differently. It requires being sensitive to another person needs, carefully assessing their response to your actions, and being creative about building connection.
Don't expect to be perfect on your first try. Instead, expect to try many, many times - because grief support is never about a single brilliant attempt, but about the combined efforts of many different people providing different kinds of support for as long as it takes.