women consoling her friend over coffee

How to Respond to Someone Who is Grieving, Part Two

In my last blog readers were invited to consider the Lakeside Grief Iceberg with its three layers that can help us better understand the outward behaviors of someone who is grieving and to also appreciate what cannot be seen: grieving people are having emotional and relational reactions. Being able to appreciate these powerful dynamics of grieving can provide us with an appreciation for what a grieving person might need, especially in terms of those things that are said to them when they try to share their grief experience with others.

In researching the subject of grief and loss I was struck by how many classic things people say when a person tries to describe something sad that has happened to them. Keep in mind that when someone is grieving, more than anything they need a safe place to share their story and to have it be received with care and appreciation and not with any communication that can diminish or minimize that loss.

In other blogs I have talked about the five unhealthy and sometimes hurtful responses well-intentioned others often make when somebody just needs to share their story. Those five responses are: reassuring them that everything is going to be fine, explaining why something probably happened, attempting to solve or suggest ways they should respond, “story stealing” by sharing one’s own story, and finally asking questions. We use the acronym RESS-Q to help us remember these five non-listening responses (it is important to note that each one of these responses can be healthy when it is meeting a need someone has but none of them are listening responses.)

We can also consider what are basically toxic messages that sometimes people transmit to be kind and caring. Each has some message that denies a person’s right to grieve. Jeanne Illsley Clarke in her classic book Connections: The Threads That Strengthen Families has an impressive list of some of these common messages. She states that these toxic messages hamper that person’s ability to be connected with their own feelings and with others. You might realize that you transmit some of these because they were transmitted to you or you observed others transmitting them. Don’t spend time beating yourself up if you notice that. Rather commit yourself to not saying them anymore and instead replace them with healthy ones.

Toxic Don’t Grieve Messages

  • You’ll get over it         
  • Don’t make a big deal of it
  • Let it go
  • Don’t get so upset     
  • These things happen
  • Don’t question it
  • Stop acting like a baby
  • Save your grief for something worthwhile
  • Serves you right
  • It’s been 6 months now, isn’t it time to get on with your life
  • Stop moping
  • Nobody lives forever
  • Don’t cry        
  • It’s God’s will, just accept it
  • You’re okay; put a smile on your face
  • You’ve cried long enough      
  • Men don’t cry
  • Boys don’t cry
  • Be a man/act like a grown-up
  • Tough it out
  • My case was worse
  • It’s all going to be okay
  • There’s too much grief. Don’t open up

Healthy messages that can replace those toxic ones:

  • Take your time to grieve
  • It’s okay to make a big deal of it
  • There is no right or perfect way to grieve
  • It’s okay to be emotional
  • You can feel so angry that this has happened
  • It’s hard to understand why some things happen
  • It’s okay to question this
  • It’s important for you to talk about this
  • It’s okay to feel childlike
  • Your grief is worthwhile
  • You didn’t deserve this
  • Take your time, there are no limits to how long the grieving process should be
  • It’s okay to feel sad
  • It’s hard to accept that people do die
  • It’s fine to be sad
  • While it may be God’s will, sometimes we wish it could be different
  • You may cry as much and as often as you need to
  • Healthy men/grown ups/ parents cry
  • It’s fine for boys to cry (or whoever is being comforted)
  • Real men are in touch with and can express their feelings
  • You don’t need to be tough
  • That was so important
  • I’d be glad to hear whatever you have to say
  • Let’s talk about how you’re feeling
  • It doesn’t feel okay right now
  • It can feel overwhelming, it’s okay to be open to your grief

Notice how you felt when you read the toxic messages. Can you see why the person on the receiving end might feel discounted or criticized? Notice how you felt when you read the healthy messages. Could you feel the loving acceptance and appreciation for a person’s loss?

I have found it to be so helpful to have the comparison of toxic messages versus healthy ones so that I feel equipped when interacting with someone who is grieving to be a true presence for them and not ever a source of pain.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Recall how people responded to you when you were going through a loss experience. When you look at the two lists, do you recognize anything said to you? How did it make you feel?
  2. Did you recognize things you have said to others?
  3. Which messages do you not want to transmit and which ones do you want to be sure you are prepared to transmit in order to be a healthy responder to someone’s grief?