Great Advice to Remember when Speaking to the Bereaved

Do you completely freeze when someone casually says, as you sit watching your kids’ soccer game, “I wasn’t here last week because my mom died.”

“Oh crap” moment right?

You’re not alone.

A friend texted me the other day, “I need you to write a memo for me on things to say when I find out someone died. My brain just leaves my body.”

If you haven’t personally experienced loss (or even if you have), these awkward moments can render you speechless, paralyzed, or otherwise sick with dread about saying the wrong thing.

I’ve had a number of people over the years reach out to me for help because they know I survived the death of my son and because of my job as a life and grief coach. They tell me about someone who has recently lost a child (sister, uncle, best friend, etc.). And they ask me to reach out and talk to the bereaved person.

I was thinking, after I got the plea from my friend for a memo, I should share how I navigate these conversations so maybe you won’t freeze the next time that awkward moment comes along.

Don’t fall into the “look at the silver lining” trap.

When I reach out to someone who’s grieving, even though I know better, I find myself falling into the trap of wanting to say things to make them feel better and pointing out the silver lining. Thankfully, I quickly recall this is SO NOT a good idea.

If you talk to people in new/deep grief about all the blessings and things they still have to appreciate in life like their spouse, their home, other children, blah blah blah, it’s a slap in the face. It minimizes the complete horror they are facing.

Encourage honoring the pain.

So instead of trying to make them feel better, I recognize their pain is a natural and normal response to loss . I encourage them to tell me the story of what happened. I encourage them to honor their pain and NOT to feel any need to go “back to normal.” There is no such thing after a big loss.

Don’t expect them to “get over it” anytime soon (or in fact, ever).

Due to the expectations from society and well-meaning friends and loved ones, many grievers feel pressured, after only a short time, to “move on” and “get over it.”

But you can’t short-circuit the grieving process. If you try, it will only re-surface many years down the road. Deep pain cannot be ignored or forgotten or buried. (My journey might well be a case study in proving this point.)

So I encourage grievers to feel the pain and allow themselves time to mourn and work their way through the grieving process. (FYI, working through the grieving process doesn’t mean “getting over it.” Read this post for more about that.)

Pain is proof of love.

I also like to share something a friend said to me very shortly after Jackson died. He said, “Most people in this situation say, “If I could take away your pain I would.”

He continued, “I don’t agree with that. I wouldn’t take away your pain because your pain is a testament to the depth of your love. It also shows how important your son’s life was and is and how much his life matters.” That actually gave me quite a bit of comfort at a time when rarely anything did.

And then, because I’ve lost someone I dearly loved and survived, I reassure them about something I know they’re questioning … whether they’re going to make it through the hellish situation they are living in.

My existence in the world as someone who survived allows me to convincingly say, “You CAN and WILL survive and even be happy again in time.” They may not believe me in that moment, but it’s something they can hold onto.

Love really does conquer all.

One of the main things that helped me personally, even in the early days, was reminding myself that the joy of having my son far surpassed the agony of losing him. I remember telling my support group, only a few weeks after Jackson’s death, if I could go back in time and not have him to avoid the pain of losing him, I would choose to have him, without hesitation, without an iota of doubt.

So, I count myself a very lucky woman, then and now. Love, combined with gratitude and effort, really can and does conquer the pain.

Well, that sums it up.

I hope you’ll remember these things the next time someone drops a conversational bomb … then you and your conversation partner can walk away not only unscathed but instead, connected and uplifted

➡ If you know someone who’s dealing with a recent (or not-so-recent) loss, you may want to tell them about my practically free text message support service. Click here to learn more about it.

➡ Does God only give people what they can handle? Does everything really happen for a reason? This free e-book answers these and other grief questions and explains the key to moving forward without ‘moving on.’