Let’s face it, going through this pandemic has us dealing with life situations that we may have never encountered before. The realization of how tenuous and fragile life is has slapped a lot of us in the face like a brick over the last 16 months. And you may have to deal with what happens when someone dies or you have a friend who is. Death has touched us all a little too closely as 600 thousand lives have been lost here in the United States.
It’s always hard to know what to say to those left behind after someone dies. You might be worried that you’ll say the wrong thing, that you’ll make the grieving family feel bad, or that you might offend someone, but staying silent can seem uncaring and impolite at the same time. So what should you do? Read on for some good advice; you’re never going to be happy to be in a situation that means someone has died and you need to speak to their loved ones, but you can feel more confident by following some simple rules.
Acknowledge The Death
The last thing you should do when you’re thinking of something to say to a grieving friend or family member is not to mention the death at all. Although that might feel like the best thing to do, since talking about the death is sure to cause them pain, the truth is that by ignoring the deceased person and not discussing how they might be feeling, you could be making them feel even worse.
After someone dies, those left behind will have a big hole to fill in their lives. Not being able to talk about the person who has passed away can make that hole feel even bigger and much less possible to climb out of.
The difference between empathy and sympathy is slight but important. When you empathize with someone, you are telling them that you understand their feelings. When you sympathize with someone, you let them know you’re feeling bad for them. That’s not quite the same thing, and sympathy isn’t always useful or welcome.
Empathy, however, certainly can be. However, there is such a thing as being too empathetic; don’t try to link the person’s grief and experiences with your own. They will be much more receptive to you and appreciate your words more if you let them know you understand but that their grief is unique to them. Simply saying you can’t imagine how they must feel could be enough, as long as it’s sincere.
It’s natural to be curious after someone dies; you’ll want to know the details because it’s part of human nature to be both attracted to and repelled by death. However, you might be afraid to ask too many questions about what happened or how the person died because you don’t want to offend or cause pain to anyone.
Questions can be ideal, however. When you ask a question, you allow the grieving relative to let loose and talk as much as they want to because they know you are willing to listen. For example, you might ask what happened, giving them a chance to talk about a traumatic event (which can be helpful for the healing process), or perhaps you’ll ask how they are coping or whether they have enough support, which gives them the opportunity to mention if they are having problems.
Offer Up Memories
Assuming you knew the person who died, even just a little, it’s a good idea to talk about them. Offer up some fun memories you have of them. This will make their loved one smile, and it will give you something definite to talk about. Plus, since the memories are between you and their deceased relative, it may be a story they’ve never heard before, and at a time when someone has died, knowing more about them and their lives can be a bonus that not everyone gets to enjoy.
Passing along this memory will open up the communication channels between you and can mean that you can have a conversation that might not have been possible without this particular opening.
Express Your Own Sadness
When you let someone who has lost a close friend or relative know that you are also feeling sadness, it will create a bond between you that will often spark conversation, at least for a short while. However, this particular idea can backfire if you go too far.
Implying that you are as sad as a close family member is after a death if the person who died wasn’t well known to you, or suggesting that you feel the same as someone else even if the circumstances are different, can leave the person you are talking to feeling as though their own feelings have been diminished or their relationship with the deceased person wasn’t special. Express your sadness but always remember that there are varying levels of grief and never exaggerate how you feel.
There are different stages of grief; it’s something that has been well documented and does seem to hold true for everyone. One of those stages is anger – anger at the person for dying, anger at the circumstances leading to that death, anger at those who are still alive, and anger at yourself for not having done anything. It might be that when you attempt to speak to the grieving person, they are going through the anger stage of their grief.
It might not be pleasant to be on the receiving end of this kind of anger, but it is natural, and it’s not something that can completely be controlled – and nor should it be. Therefore, accept the anger; most of the time, it won’t be aimed at you but at the world in general. Once the person you are speaking to has let out all their anger, you can be there for them, and that’s hugely important.
Offer To Help
Sometimes talking is great, but it’s not what is really going to make the grieving relative feel better. What can be much more beneficial is asking if you can help. Don’t be vague about this; suggest ways that you can help them, such as being there when they need to pick out headstones for cemeteries or seeing if they want you to organize the caterers for the wake. Perhaps you’re worried they won’t be focusing on their own health, so you can offer to prepare some meals for them.
Offering to help means you’re acknowledging that something has gone terribly wrong, and it’s a good entry point to any conversation. Once they have started to open up to you, you’ll feel happier to speak more freely and try some of the ideas we mentioned above.
Obviously this is a tough converstion to have. If any of you out there are going through this now, I send you my condolences and healing in your time of grief and peace during your pain.