Chart: Grief vs. Grieving

Why We Shouldn’t Rescue Someone Who Is Grieving 

After reading that title, does that sound mean to you? Isn’t rescuing someone who is grieving the kind thing to do? And yet there are good reasons to not immediately try to rescue someone who is grieving, and for this blog I am spelling rescue “RESS-Q.”

Let’s begin by defining grief and grieving. According to Google, “Grief is the natural response to loss, while grieving is the process of coming to terms with that loss. Grief is the collection of feelings like sorrow, anger, jealousy, nostalgia, or a host of other emotions that come with loss.” Someone experiencing all those powerful emotions often needs someone with whom to process their experience so they can come to terms with what or who they have lost.

Processing with someone is best done through the communication skill of Active Listening. Active Listening happens when the listener turns their full attention to the grieving person, and with the body language of compassion, puts words to that person’s experience to help them release some of their feelings as a way to eventually resolve them.

Harville Hendrix, author of several books on relationships coined the acronym H.U.G. as a shorthand for capturing what this process looks like.

  • H stands for pausing to Hear what the person is saying instead of listening to what’s going on in your own head
  • U stands for Understanding what that person is saying, figuring out what they might be experiencing and anything else about what has happened to them
  • G stands for Giving a statement back to them that reflects what they heard and understood

For example, if someone recently lost a beloved pet and is in terrible emotional pain about it, the listener can hear the anguish in the person’s voice and affect and can understand that the person might be overwhelmed with grief. They can give a statement or two that puts words to what they are hearing and understanding. “Your beloved dog just died and it was so unexpected! Every part of you is hurting right now.”  

A listener needs to continue sometimes for many minutes providing H.U.G. responses that allows the person the gift of discharging the many emotions they are experiencing and often provides an opportunity for them to gain greater clarity about what and why they are feeling as they are feeling.

Here is where not rescuing [RESS-Qing] comes in. What a person does not need in the immediate aftermath of major loss is someone to do one or more of the following things: to begin by reassuring them or telling them everything is going to be OK. This is because it doesn’t feel OK. There is a time to reassure someone but not at the beginning of an interaction. Reassuring can stop the process of discharging feelings. Reassuring is the R of RESS-Q.

Next the person should not provide any form of explanation. Often people want someone to understand why something has happened and so they offer explanations. When they are first grieving most people really aren’t interested in why something happened. They are hurting too much and can’t concentrate on processing explanations. There may be a time when information will be helpful but not when the person is in a highly emotional state. Explaining is the E of RESS-Q.

The person should not attempt to solve or even make suggestions. When someone is in the throes of grieving, they are not ready to think about the actions they should take. They should not be asked to work on the problems the loss has created. Solving and or giving suggestions is the first S of RESS-Q.

The person should not jump in with some of their own personal stories of loss. In LGI we call this “story- stealing.” Often when we hear other people’s losses, our own memories of loss pop up. This is not the time to share these because it takes away from having the spotlight on the person who is grieving. There may be a time later to do some of that sharing but not in the immediate moments of being in a place where you have the honor of processing with a grieving person. Sharing is the second S of RESS-Q.

Finally, and many people find this to be one of the most difficult things to avoid, is asking Questions. Questions put the speaker in a position of deciding the direction of the conversation instead of being in a place of responding to what is going on for the grieving person. Questions require the grieving person to step away from their emotions to figure out the answer to whatever is being asked. It interrupts the process and takes away from the grieving person’s need to just vent with someone who is safe, compassionate and receptive.

People RESS-Q with the best of intentions. They want to be helpful. Often they are trying to find a way to stop the person from hurting because it is hard to be with somebody who is in pain and to feel like you’re not doing something to stop that pain. What lessons the pain is not about stopping someone’s pain but rather walking beside them when they are in pain and trusting the process of grieving over time. Being able to offer verbal H.U.G.’s is an incredible gift to a grieving person. It takes a lot of intentionality, focus and practice to step away from RESS-Qing and instead engage in a listening exchange.

While it takes a lot of work to maintain the process of offering listening responses while someone expresses their feelings and sometimes needs for describing in great detail what has happened to them, it is very rewarding to know you can be a part of someone’s healing by surrounding them with the loving messages of hearing them, understanding them and putting words to what’s going on for them.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How did learning about the concept of RESS-Qing feel? Do you recall being someone who used one or more of these responses when somebody might have benefited more from a Listening statement?
  2. What are some of the challenges you think you might face if you want to become a better listener? Which of the RESS-Q categories might be the most challenging for you?
  3. Think about a time when you were grieving. Think about how people around you responded to your grief. Did you receive a lot of RESS-Q responses? Were you lucky enough that someone processed with you using listening responses? If so, how did that make you feel? Did it give you an opportunity to move through the grieving process and feel more connected to them because they were able to truly Listen?