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Insights from the Behavioral Science Guy: The worst (and best) things to say to someone who is grieving

Published: Wednesday, July 23 2014 10:00 a.m. MDT

Too many times, we avoid those in pain because we aren’t sure what to say.

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Editor's note: A version of this column was published previously at crucialskills.com.

Dear Joseph,

My husband recently passed away, and although I’m sure they don’t mean to hurt me, several of my friends and family members have made insensitive comments about my loss or the way I grieve. For example, people have told me, “It was God’s will” and “It’s time to get on with your life.” I know they are trying to help, but I don’t know what to say when somebody belittles my pain. How can I respond to seemingly insensitive comments about my husband’s death?

Signed,


Don’t Make It Worse

I’m so sorry about your husband. I’m especially sorry that the pain you’re feeling has been compounded by others’ actions. I wish I could help with the first problem, but I hope to offer some helpful ideas for solving the second.

I asked readers to share their perspective. Many wrote back about their experiences from which three clear messages emerged.

1. Offer your heart, not your brain. Too many times, we avoid those in pain because we aren’t sure what to say. We think we need to soothe their pain with poetry laced with wisdom of the ages. Don’t wait for inspired words. Just make contact, grieve alongside them and share the moment. Usually, “I’m sorry for your loss” is enough. Our mere presence may be enough. One reader lamented: “When my mother passed away, I don’t remember anyone telling me it was OK to feel sad or lost, or to hate what breast cancer did to her little body. It would have helped if someone gave me permission to grieve.”

2. Don’t offer judgments. We may not realize it, but much of what we do when we try to reassure those who have lost loved ones is self-centered. Statements like “It was God’s will” are often made to try to push away the unresolvable pain of loss that must simply be experienced.

Years ago, Mel Lerner described a common human motivation called the "just-world hypothesis." We all want to believe the world is just and fair. If we work hard, eat right, exercise regularly and do our share of house chores, life will work out. When we pass a traffic accident on the freeway, our belief in a “just world” is at risk for a moment. So somewhat reflexively, we drive slowly by the victim, scouring the scene for any evidence that it couldn’t possibly happen to us. “I bet they were texting while driving,” we might conclude as we notice a young driver. If you’re not careful, you can respond similarly to those who have experienced the death of a loved one. We want their pain to go away so we can reassure ourselves that we can avoid pain as well.

So we offer advice on grieving, judgment to help them put their pain “in perspective,” etc. Be careful, because when we feel a need to make these kinds of comments, it’s often more because we want to restore our faith in a “just world” than because we want to soothe our friend’s pain.

3. Don't give them an assignment. Do take thoughtful initiative. When we’re at a loss for what to say, we often end with, “If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.” That’s not support — that’s an assignment. You’ve tasked the grieving person with creating a chore list for you.

If you really want to do something, stop and think. Empathize as best you can until you find some proactive task you can do to communicate real compassion. It won’t matter if it’s the perfect idea; it just matters that you take initiative rather than assign them to involve you. They rarely will, so the offer rings hollow.

After my neighbor lost a loved one, his wonderful friend showed up to mow his lawn for the next three months. Did the man want his lawn mowed? I don’t know. I do know that he felt more love from that empathic gesture than if his neighbor had merely said, “What can I do?”

The pain we feel at a time of grief is universal. It may be your friend suffering today, but it will be you tomorrow. A little empathy for how our comments are experienced at these tender times will help us offer more useful love during one of life’s most poignant experiences.

Joseph Grenny, the Behavioral Science Guy, is a New York Times best-selling author and cofounder of VitalSmarts. For 30 years he has led a research team helping organizations achieve new levels of performance.

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