Tatiana Ayazo/rd.com,shutterstockA guaranteed way of minimizing a person’s loss? Telling them they’re not the first person to lose someone. “We realize a zillion people lose loved ones, but I am the first who lost my child, parent, sibling, aunt, or grandparent,” Markwell says. “Telling us others have kept on going does not, in our minds, lessen the hurt.” Instead, she advises switching that phrase around to convey others’ experiences without comparison or judgment. “This lets us know how hard they struggled but eventually were able to move on,” Markwell says.
Tatiana Ayazo/rd.com,shutterstockA grief survey by Slate and editor Meghan O’Rouke, author of one of the gripping memoirs by women who overcame the impossible, The Long Goodbye, found that sentiments expressing false comfort were hurtful. Never assume the bereaved believes in a higher power, or even if they do that invoking a “reason,” a “better place,” or “God’s plan” will be helpful. Instead, survey participants simply sought recognition and acknowledgment for their grief, without condition. “When talking to someone who’s grieving, acknowledge little can be done to make a grieving person feel better,” Dr. Serani says. “You can’t repair the loss.” Markwell agrees. “There is never a good enough reason for our loved ones to be taken from us,” she says. Expressing this can help the mourner feel validated.
Tatiana Ayazo/rd.com,shutterstockAmong the things you should never say to a widow is, “You’re so strong.” Although it’s meant to be encouraging, it can feel like anything but. “We are exhausted from trying to look strong when we feel weak as kittens,” Markwell says. “Our damaged foundations of strength must be rebuilt on a piece at a time.” Instead, acknowledge that it’s difficult to be strong and that it’s OK not to be right now. “This takes the pressure off to act and be something we don’t feel at this time,” Markwell says.
Tatiana Ayazo/rd.com,shutterstockAlthough “Let me know if you need anything,” seems like a helpful phrase, in reality, it places the onus on the bereaved person to find something for you do (plus, this story will prove why you should stop saying “let me know if you need anything”). Instead, pick a task and just tell them you’re going to do it. “Sometimes the smallest things mean the most,” says Joan E. Markwell, author of Softening the Grief, who lost her own daughter to cancer. Coming by to do laundry or other housework, stopping at the store to pick up groceries, or performing other mundane tasks that the bereaved person might not feel up to can help relieve some of their day-to-day burdens.
Tatiana Ayazo/rd.com,shutterstockIt’s hard to know what people going through a loss really need, and even harder to know what to say. But according to the American Psychological Association, research shows most people can recover from loss if they have social support—so how can you give that to them? “I work with people in trauma, and grieving is a process that takes time,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Depression in Later Life. “The goal when talking to someone who has experienced an enormous loss is to express your heartfelt concerns in a way that doesn’t minimize, invalidate, or cause an emotional blunder.” Simply letting the grieving person know you’re there for them is most helpful. “Phrases like, ‘I’m here for you’ help grieving individuals feel comforted instead of directed,” Dr. Serani says.