Much has been written about the process of bereavement. In her seminal book “On Death and Dying,” (1969) Elisabeth Kübler-Ross presents a model of grief resolution identifying the following five “stages” that a bereaved person may experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While it may seem that this model presents grief as a linear process with the bereaved person moving from one stage to another in a neat and tidy sequence, in practice, this process is more cyclical. An alternate model of grieving was developed by J. William Worden, PhD, and outlined in his book "Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Second Edition" (Springer, 1991). Rather than stages, this model focuses on what Worden terms the “four tasks of mourning” and describes the tasks as follows: to accept the reality of the loss, to experience the pain of grief, to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is no longer there, to withdraw emotional energy from the relationship with the deceased and refocus it into new relationships. Grieving can be a multi-faceted process and how it manifests is highly specific to each person. These models help us to intellectually conceptualize what a person might be facing when someone close to them dies. However, when we are challenged with finding something to say to someone in mourning, we must look into our hearts and access our empathic nature.
Here are some general guidelines to consider when speaking to someone who has experienced the loss of a loved one:
1. Avoid saying things such as: “This too shall pass” or “Time heals all wounds.”
While it may be true that the passage of time allows us to work through some of the acute pain of grief, the loss of a loved one never truly “heals.” The void that the loss has created in the survivor’s life is constant and ongoing. The loved one is irreplaceable and to imply that the pain will completely pass can be viewed as insensitive. Along these same lines, avoid religious statements unless you are confident in your understanding of the mourner’s spiritual beliefs. Though you may mean well, offering words such as “your loved one is in a better place” to someone who does not believe in an afterlife can be hurtful.
2. Consider saying instead: “I know that nothing I can say will take away the pain, but I am here with you.”
Acknowledging the powerlessness of words to comfort the bereaved person is, in itself, powerful. What matters more is the empathetic connection and feeling behind the words. When you make it clear that you are a witness to the bereaved person’s pain, and will stay present in the face of their grief, your intention speaks louder than an awkward platitude. The truth is that there is nothing that can be said that will truly make the bereaved person feel much better. The comfort to the mourner lies in your courage to face the pain by their side and in their knowing that a loving friend is there to listen when and if they are ready to speak about their loss.
3. Take action.
There many concrete details to attend to when a loved one dies and the bereaved person may not solicit help. Appropriate to your level of intimacy with the bereaved, you can proactively offer specific assistance. Perhaps that means proposing to coordinate some of the funeral arrangements. Maybe it’s keeping an ongoing list of condolence cards and flowers that have been sent. One woman, with whom I recently spoke, talked of helping an overwhelmed grieving mother by “running interference” with guests at the wake. A widow shared with me how much it meant to her to be sent flowers and a note several days after her husband’s death. This personal remembrance touched her more than if the flowers had been sent to the cemetery as part of the funeral services.
4. Be careful about making assumptions about what the bereaved is feeling.
As mentioned above, grief can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. If someone who has lost a loved one is not forthcoming with outward expressions of emotion such as tears and sobs, do not assume that this person is repressing the pain. Not everyone who is invited to share deeper feelings will chose to do so and, in fact, may not be in great emotional distress. A son who had lost his father in an automobile accident received expressions of sympathy from his co-workers who couldn’t understand why he did not seem to be “upset enough.” What the well-intentioned co-workers hadn’t known, however, was that the son had been estranged from his abusive father for years and had done extensive processing of the loss of a relationship with his father well before the latter’s physical death. Subsequently, the son’s outer presentation at the news of his father’s passing was relatively lacking in emotion.
In sum, when the subject of grief, loss and bereavement is raised, we strive to say the right thing but are often at a loss to know how to provide comfort. Don’t be afraid that by acknowledging the pain of a mourner’s loss you might be causing them more pain. Sorrow may be an unavoidable part of life, but one that is made more bearable by human connection, compassion, and empathy.
Cook, A. S., & Dworkin, D. S. (1992). Helping the Bereaved: Therapeutic interventions for children, adolescents, and adults. USA: BasicBooks.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation. Five stages of grief. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from http://www.ekrfoundation.org/five-stages-of-grief