Grief is a complex and individual experience. It’s a process to work through, for both you and the person you care about. Just as grief involves stages, so too does learning to communicate about it. We look at the grieving process and a few simple ways you can support someone who’s suffering.
It’s important to remember that grief is a process, not an isolated event. It’s not over in a matter of days, weeks or months – the depth of a person’s grief and their subsequent distress is dependent on the personal significance of their loss.
Keep judgements to a minimum
The grieving process plays out differently for everyone, so where possible, avoid making judgements on the way someone is processing their grief.
For example, if they feel being at work is a good distraction from their pain, that’s totally okay. It doesn’t reduce the intensity of their grief – it’s just different to how you might personally approach dealing with it.
Stick with them
While support networks can be quick to rally around a grieving person in the immediate aftermath of their loss, many don’t realise the real pain of grief often sets in further down the line. As that flurry of love and support dissipates, the griever can be left feeling abandoned and alone. It’s during this period (often lasting for a few years) that they’ll need your care and support the most.
To combat this, stay in touch as best you can – a simple text or offer for a catch-up down the track may be a small gesture, but it can mean the world to someone who’s feeling lonely.
Where to start
Now we understand the process a little better, let’s dive into the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of what to say.
Not knowing what to say when someone dies can be paralysing, but it’s worse to say nothing at all. We’ve established that grief can be a terribly lonely experience, so it’s better to acknowledge someone’s loss and get it wrong than to stay silent or absent. It’s also key to be aware that, in the early stage of grief, people are generally not quite ready to talk about their loss in a philosophical way – developing that perspective will take time and patience.
If you’re feeling stumped on where to start, here are some things to say when someone dies:
- “I’m sorry for your loss” – In the early stages of grief, this might be all that person needs to hear from you.
- “How can I help?” – When it comes to questions, this one opens a door, so don’t ask it just once. What’s helpful initially might not be so at later stages of the grieving process.
Don’t say that!
Insensitive or unhelpful comments, while not intentional, can often be the result of pure nervousness or from not knowing how to show your support. While they don’t necessarily come from an unkind place, there are ways to bypass that awkwardness.
As a rule of thumb, try to steer clear of the following:
- “I know how you feel” – Grief is highly personal, so you’ll never truly know how that person is experiencing their loss, and claiming that you do can feel invalidating to them.
- “Be grateful for the time you had together” – Grief isn’t an indicator of ingratitude.
- “At least he/she didn’t suffer” – This implies the grieving person should be logical about what they’re feeling. Making comments like this can deny someone the right to feel what they feel for as long as they need to feel it.
- “They lived a full life” – This one is on the same level as ‘I know how you feel’ – a big no-no.
- “He/she is with god/the angels/any other religious variation now” – It isn’t helpful to assume the griever believes in God, or that you know the location of their beloved’s soul. Grief is an opportunity to develop authentic beliefs, so be sensitive about imposing your personal ones on someone else.
Tell them a story
Sharing a positive story or memory you have of their loved one can be hugely comforting for someone in pain. This will gently let them know how much that person meant to you.
Save the funny anecdotes for later down the track, and invite them to share their fond memories too. For some, keeping memories alive through words, songs, names and stories can be heartening, but the opposite is true for others. Again, it comes down to personal experience, so tailor your response accordingly.
If you or someone you know is suffering from loss and feeling alone, there are services out there to help you.