I must admit that it has taken me a few days of processing before I could say anything about the horrible tragedy that took place in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday. Like all of you who are parents or who know a child that you love, the ultimate nightmare for me would be to have to endure what many parents in Newtown are now enduring.
I ask myself what I can add to the myriad of commentary that so many experts have already put forth; commentary on gun laws, on children’s safety in school, on psychological issues that could prompt such a horrific act etc.
Obviously there is much to say on all of these topics and a good many more. What I will choose to speak about instead is the Universal question, “What do I say to a grieving person who has just experienced the tumultuous, torture of a senseless loss?” We all stumble and often avoid the conversation that is actually much needed, and has the potential to enhance healing, because we have no idea what to say. I offer these suggestions from my many years of teaching and counseling grieving people.
First of all, lead with your heart. This is really not a head deal. There is no perfect answer here, but I can assure you that the best responses will come from your heart, you can’t intellectualize a prize winning reply in a situation like this. Just do what your heart prompts you to do. This may mean that you just hold the person while they sob, or while you sob with them. Or it may mean that you open your heart and ears and just listen without opinion or judgment while they rant, talk, scream, or cry. In the beginning just giving support while the griever expresses the roller coaster of emotions being experienced, is the best thing you can lovingly do.
When the time comes for talk try to reflect back the emotional content that you are hearing from them. (i.e. “It sounds like you feel so angry and confused.” Or “ I can’t imagine how devastating this must be.”) Try to think of your responses as prompts to encourage them to speak some more. The most important thing you can do is allow and encourage the expression of the tumultuous feelings that are going on.
Be sure to keep it all about the person in pain. This is not your opportunity to tell your sad story. If it should become relevant to reference something that happened to you, do so briefly and then get back to prioritizing the person in pain.
I have an in-depth piece I have written on this topic. I call it “Helpful Conversations With Grieving People.” I am happy to send it to any of you who want to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It has many examples of the do’s and don’ts, of what to say, but before I close I must say a few words about the DO NOT Do’s.
- Say “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Even if you have experienced a similar loss, you don’t know how this person feels.
- Say “You just have to be strong.” No they don’t. Their heart is broken and their guts have been ripped out. Would you be strong in a similar circumstance?
- Say “It just takes time.” Sometimes time makes grief worse. It isn’t time that heals…it is what you do with the time that has the potential to heal or not.
- Say “Just call me if you need anything.” They are ripped to shreds, they don’t have the strength to call you and even if they did they are probably too distraught or ashamed. Just call them and tell them what you are going to do for them. (i.e. I’m going to come by and bring you some food and if you would like to talk I’m yours.”)
- Say “I guess God needed her/him more than you did.” Do I even need to explain why this kind of inane comment could make the griever feel that homicide was a reasonable option.
- Avoid talking about the loss because you don’t want to bring it up and make them feel bad. This is like the proverbial elephant in the living room. Trust me, there isn’t one second that they aren’t aware of the loss, so you’re not bringing it up, only imposes on them keeping up a pretense for your comfort.
- Say “Don’t cry, tears won’t help anything.” Oh yes they will. Crying is one of the ways we express our pain, devastation and outrage. Change that to “Feel free to cry” and you’ll be actually helping.
- Say things like “Be thankful you have other children.” As if numbers make any difference when a soul you loved has been lost.
- Say “You have been grieving for quite awhile, it’s time to dry your tears and get back into life.” There isn’t a timeline on grief. It’s a unique experience for everyone and each grief experience is unique as well. No one has the right to tell anyone else how long they should take to grieve or heal, period.
- Say “You just have to keep busy, keep your mind off it.” People don’t heal the pain of grief through avoidance. Yes, you have to try to find balance and integrate some of normal life activities, but only when you are ready and only in small doses.
There are many other horrifying things that people have said to grieving people in the name of being ‘helpful’ and certainly most people don’t mean to do harm…but they do, when they come from ignorance about the things we have just discussed. So please re-read this blog, send it on to others, let’s start a movement to stop abusing grievers and start taking actions that are truly helpful.
If you know someone in Newtown, Connecticut my heart goes out to you. Make the call…as terrifying as I know it is because you have no idea what to say…make the call, come from your heart and just LISTEN.
Love and Blessings to you all,