Death is inevitable and the pain can be overwhelming.
As a friend, we may also often face trouble when finding the right words to say to a grieving person.
Although usually well intentioned, our attempts to console someone who recently lost a loved one may come across as hurtful or insensitive.
Some of us may not even know where to begin and say nothing at all.
So, we asked a mental health expert how should we respond to a grieving person while showing we care. Here's what he said:
1. What should we avoid saying to someone who is grieving, and why?
According to mental health therapist Lee Kah Seng of Telos Mental Wellness, some phrases we should avoid are:
– "Stay strong"/ "Be strong for [insert family member here]" – Many people are well meaning when they say this, but this phrase diminishes a grieving person's ability to take the time they need to heal from the loss of their loved one. It could make a person feel like they cannot afford to process the loss and that they have to move on with life and pretend things are normal for the benefit of people around them. It may also make people feel like they should not be feeling what they are currently feeling, and that it makes them look 'weak'.
– "At least he/she is not suffering anymore" – Again, many default to looking for the bright side or silver lining, but it may not be helpful as it is effectively forcing the bereaved to look for positives despite feeling awful about their situation. If the grieving person says this themselves, then it is fine, but we should not be trying to change the way a person perceives their loss during this time.
– "He/she is in a better place now"/ "God doesn't give you more than you can bear"/ "It's all part of God's plan" – Avoid bringing religion into the conversation unless you are absolutely sure the bereaved shares the same sentiment as you. You may only be adding offence to the pain they are already feeling. The second example could come across as judgmental and make the person feel inferior.
2. What can we say instead?
Lee shares that we should acknowledge their feelings and to simply provide them a non-judgemental space, such as saying:
– "I know this is a difficult time, but I just want you to know that it's alright to feel whatever it is you're feeling, whenever you're feeling it."
– "I understand that there's nothing I can say right now to make this easier, but I'm here for you."
– "I can't even begin to understand what you're going through, I'm so sorry for your loss."
3. How else can we support them through this difficult time?
– Avoid trying to 'fix' the situation by trying to make them see the silver lining, give hopeful comments, or tell jokes in an attempt at cheering them up. This may have the best intentions but it might make the person feel like what they are going through is invalid.
– Accept the idea that there's nothing you can say or do that will immediately alleviate the pain that the person is going through. Once you do that, then the next best thing you can do for that person is to be present for them. Show a willingness to listen to anything they have to say. Hold the space for them and let them know that it is okay to feel any emotions that flow through them.
– Offer concrete and practical ways you can help. Many people say, "Let me know if you need anything" and chances are the bereaved may not take up the offer because they think that, "This is something someone says to be nice". As such, the best way you can offer your help is to be specific with the help you are ready and willing to give, such as, "Have you had lunch? I can buy/cook [insert dish here] for you".
– If you know the person that has passed, you can also share stories or anecdotes of that person (provided the moment is right, and it's organic to bring it up). At a time when the bereaved might feel down that there will never be any new stories, it can be very heartwarming for them to know of instances whereby the lost one has touched another's heart, or to hear stories that they have never heard of.
– If you do not know the person that has passed, you may also ask your grieving friend for stories to know them better (again, provided if the time is right). It is okay to ask, "I didn't get a chance to know them, how would you describe their personality?" Giving the grieving person a chance to speak about the deceased is a way of helping them process the loss.
At the end of the day, be genuine about wanting to help or listen, and things will come through
Most of the time, simply being there for a friend who is going through a difficult time and listening to their worries is more than enough.