Author and Grief Expert Paula Shaw shares what to say – and not say – to the bereaved.
Over the years of counseling grieving people, I have been asked a hundred times, “What do I say to someone who has just lost a child or a husband or a job? I’m afraid to call because I don’t know what to say or how to help.”
Have you been there? I think we all have, at one time or another. Because this dilemma is so common, I wrote the following piece to give a concrete answer to people who are genuinely intimidated by the prospect of being in the presence of someone who has just suffered profound grief and loss. I don’t know about you, but they didn’t offer Grief 101 at my school. So how are we supposed to know how to be truly helpful and not patronizing or even abusive?
We have to learn, sometimes the hard way or at someone else’s expense. With this piece from my new book When Will This Pain Ever End? I hope to give you some solid answers you can use immediately. Please let me know if you find it helpful.
The bereaved need to be listened to, not supplied with answers. They know deep inside that there are no explanations to the most important questions they are asking themselves, and they aren’t really expecting answers from those who console them. If we truly wish to respond to the needs of those who are grieving, our condoling actions should typically begin with a distinct emphasis on listening, not talking. There is power in the silence of listening, and a clear message: “I’m right here, I care and I’m with you. I may not be sure what to say, but I'm ready to listen.”
Real listening comes from the heart, where sympathy and healing begin. To listen intently, the listener must be fully present in the moment. It requires practice and energy, but the effect can be amazing. When the listener puts all other thoughts aside and truly listens empathically, the speaker's emotional floodgates may open and release long pent-up feelings. As this deep listening continues, the speaker often comes up with his or her own solutions to problems. This is a tremendous gift to give to someone in pain.
Listen without judgment and respond with feeling words. ("How painful." "What frustration!" "Sounds so heartbreaking." How devastating." "What confusion this must create for you." "It’s so sad." "How lonely.")
Being a good listener is difficult if your own issues of loss are unresolved. Discomfort or anxiety might arise and take you out of the moment if the speaker's conversation touches upon issues that still cause you pain. In the best-case scenario, your own grief work would be completed and these unresolved issues wouldn't exist. However, if this should not be the case, the best course of action would be to tell the speaker honestly what you are feeling, and then try to get back to discussion of his/her situation.
Once you have taken time to listen, healing conversation can begin. Remember grief is emotional, not intellectual! Helpful conversations need to encourage emotional outlet. Here are some helpful remarks with which you might start:
THE FOLLOWING ARE NOT HELPFUL
While some of the above statements may be intellectually accurate, they are ineffective and possibly even abusive. Grief is an emotional state, not an intellectual one! The head isn’t broken; the heart is. Emotion is the medicine of the heart. People in emotional states only feel HEARD if they are responded to with emotion. People in pain need to relate to our humanity, not our database!
Remember the most important ingredient in helping someone in pain is the intention of your heart. Stay present and stay in your intention to comfort and support. If you do this, you will know the right things to say.
If any part of you thinks you need to get the griever to “snap out of it and move on,” please give them their space. None of us has the right to say “time’s up” in regards to someone else’s pain. Believe me, no one wants to be hurting any longer than they have to, but they also can’t be what they are not.
Let me make this as simple and clear as I can:
Let us know if you found this piece helpful or if you implemented the suggestions offered. As I mentioned earlier, this article is an excerpt from my soon to be released book When Will This Pain Ever End? Be sure to subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss further excerpts and news about the book’s publication.
PAULA SHAW, CADC, DCEP is an author, Energy Psychology specialist, therapist, speaker, Reiki Master and Grief Counselor. For more than 20 years, Paula has been passionate about empowering people who are dealing with profound loss, so they can reap something truly beautiful from their pain. She also helps clients who are going through major life transitions or seeking freedom from self-destructive addictions. She has degrees in Education and Communications from Long Beach State University, as well as graduate counseling credentials from Loyola Marymount University. She is one of the founding members of the Association of Comprehensive Energy Psychology and currently serves on its board of directors. Paula is the auther of Chakras, the Magnificent Seven (2002), as well as the upcoming book When Will This Pain Ever End? Finding Your Way out of the Pit of Despair after Suffering Profound Grief and Loss, which will be released in the spring of 2015.
Receive Our Latest Articles by Email
PAULA SHAW, CADC, DCEP is an author, Energy Psychology specialist, therapist, speaker, Reiki Master and Grief Counselor. For more than 20 years, Paula has been passionate about empowering people who are dealing with profound loss, so they can reap something truly beautiful from their pain. She also helps clients who are going through major life transitions or seeking freedom from self-destructive addictions. She has degrees in Education and Communications from Long Beach State University, as well as graduate counseling credentials from Loyola Marymount University. She is one of the founding members of the Association of Comprehensive Energy Psychology and currently serves on its board of directors. Paula is the author of Chakras, the Magnificent Seven (2002), as well as "Grief...When Will This Pain Ever End?" Finding Your Way out of the Pit of Despair After Profound Loss.
Former Blog Archive
Thank you for reading Paula's Blog. Because our site moved in June, we were unable to transfer all of our blog posts over. You can however, read the rest of them by visiting our old blog site. HERE