While counseling people who have lost someone of value, I’ve learned so much about what they want (and don’t want) to hear. Most often, people who have experienced a tragic loss simply want you to “be there.” They need you to remain present in their lives and available if they need you. They don’t want you to try and cheer them up. One of the worst things you can do is to (inadvertently) make light of their sorrow by saying things like, “You’ll get through this,” or, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” These statements might be true, but that doesn’t make them the right thing to say. One of the most idiotic things I’ve ever seen was a sympathy card in a store that read, in flowery script, “He is only sleeping.” Imagine receiving THAT when you’re trying to endure the anguish of a loss!
You can’t “make” someone feel better. They will almost certainly get better in their own time. Human beings are a resilient lot. A grieving friend cannot, in a certain sense, be consoled. He or she just needs you to be the same person you always were; a soothing reminder that they still have something valuable. The best you can do is to provide stability and familiarity in their time of sorrow.
It’s hard to watch a friend or loved one suffer. But, in a desperate attempt to “do something,” you can often do more harm than good. Don’t preach to them. It might make you feel better, but they’ll respond by thinking, “How can he (or she) understand what I’m going through?” Any attempt to make things right applies a subtle pressure that they have to get over this quickly. But why? I regularly tell people in grief counseling, “You’re never going to get over this, and that’s OK. You’re not always going to feel like you do right now, but whenever you think about the loss, you’ll feel sad. Forever allowing a part of yourself to grieve is a way to stay loyal to your lost loved one. And, over time, you’ll begin to see that it’s equally loyal to go on with your own life as well.” My clients appreciate this, because rarely is anybody else saying it to them. Most people either preach or back away; the two worst things you can do in their time of need.
Funerals, viewings, wakes and other social rituals are certainly a necessary part of the grieving process. But because they occur so soon after the death — before the shock wears off and the real grieving sets in — they don’t provide everything that’s needed. This isn’t the time to escape the sadness and get back to normal. They need you more after the ceremony than they did in the initial two or three days. If you want to truly be there for them, that’s the time. Forget about, “What can I say to help them feel better?” It isn’t your job, and it isn’t possible anyway. Just be present, without unintentionally pressuring them to get over it. Your gentle silence can effectively communicate everything you feel.
This applies most dramatically to the death of a loved one. The demise of a close family member is undoubtedly the worst kind of loss for most people. But other kinds of loss can also bring sadness. People lose their jobs, they lose beloved pets, they lose their homes to fire or natural disasters, and they lose friends. Although most of these situations may not be as drastic as the events following a death, the same general themes apply.
You don’t have to offer clichés and empty platitudes to pressure them into getting through it. They feel what they feel, and that’s fine. Your job is to simply be yourself; the trusted friend or family member that you always were. In doing so, you help them appreciate the fact that, despite their loss, life still has good things to offer.
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