I’ve always told people close to me that they can talk to me about anything. That’s how my mother-in-law turned to me to express how she felt after losing her daughter.
I understand how awkward it can be to talk to someone who’s lost a loved one. In such a situation, you can do things that make it better and others that make it worse.
So here are seven things to watch for when talking to someone who has lost a loved one.
Keep platitudes to a minimum
“Just take it one day at a time.”
“You’ll see, everything will be all right.”
“It’ll get better; just give it some time.”
I will let you in on a little secret: the person knows that. It’s obvious, especially for those who are on the receiving end. When 10, 15, or 20 people tell you the same things over and over again, it becomes pointless and even annoying.
Let’s be clear: you are not at fault. Your intentions are noble, but look at it from the other point of view: everyone is repeating the same things over and over again. At some point, it becomes tiresome.
What can you do instead? Ask the other person how they see the future. Take time to listen to their answer and let them talk. In times of great sadness, we tend to want to provide answers.
Sometimes there are no answers. Instead, it’s better just to be present.
Hold your tongue as long as you can… then try again
Many of us don’t pay attention to what another person is saying. As the other person is talking, our mind is trying to figure out when would be the right moment to jump in with our opinions. Sometimes, we even wait for the other person to take a breath so we can blurt out our thoughts.
When you do that, you’re not listening to what the other person has to say. You’re more focused on yourself than you are on them, and that has several adverse effects.
You won’t hear what the person really has to say. You will miss some nuances, body language, and the actual words used. The language may be as subtle as whether the person speaks in the present tense or the past tense.
When I was listening to my mother-in-law, I noticed that she was talking in the present tense. I never corrected her because I realized that her daughter was still present for her. I could have corrected her use of the present tense (and if she reads this, she’s going to realize that), but I didn’t think it was useful.
Grieving is a process, and it’s different for everyone. Some people process it more quickly than others, and you can’t force people to do it any faster than they are capable of doing it.
Give them time.
Don’t be judge and jury
“You shouldn’t feel like that!”
But they do. Deal with it.
You can’t tell people how to feel. Telling someone that they’re not supposed to feel what they’re feeling is like a slap in the face. It doesn’t matter how irrational it is; what you feel is what you feel.
If you lose someone and you feel angry about it, and you’re angry toward the person who died because they left you behind, well, that’s how you feel. It’s not right; it’s not wrong; it just is.
To negate someone’s feelings toward a traumatic experience just makes it worse. Everyone feels pain differently, and there’s no reason to tell them that what they feel isn’t “allowed.”
How do you know whether you’re judging someone? Pay attention to the words you use. Or, more importantly, the words that are swirling around in your head as the other person is speaking.
These can be words like:
- “You shouldn’t feel like that.”
- “You don’t really mean that.”
- “How can you say that?”
There are many more variations, but you get what I mean. Self-analysis is required before telling someone something that might delegitimize what they’re going through.
Feelings are irrational. It’s the reason why, in the same situation, some people will cry, some will laugh, some will close up, and others will get angry. There are as many possible reactions as there are people. Each reaction is legitimate, no matter how irrational it may seem.
One reaction is not better or more right than another. But negating your feelings is never a good idea, no matter what the situation.
Keep your advice to yourself
We tend to think that when someone is not feeling well, we should offer them as much advice as possible to get them out of their funk and back on the “right path.”
That’s not a good strategy, far from it.
When somebody is feeling down, they need to talk and express what they feel. Many of us do not have people with whom we can be fully open about our thoughts and feelings. If someone trusts you with their emotions and wants to share them with you, don’t betray that trust.
When we give unsolicited advice, even though we think we’re doing it for the other person, we are really doing it for ourselves. Because let’s face it, it feels good to be the one to provide solutions. Plus, that person may come back in a few years and say that you changed their life with your words.
Giving unsolicited advice is similar to negating someone’s emotions: you’re telling the other person how to live their life correctly. Most of us are not trained professionals, and even though we may know our friends very well, there are times when you have to let the other person find answers on their own.
Psychologists understand this. When you see a therapist, they tend not to give you answers to your problems but have you work through them and find answers yourself. What they offer are options when you ask for them. They can provide avenues to explore, but you’re the one who has to make the final decision and take steps to address your challenges.
Does that mean that you never give advice? No. If the person you’re talking with asks what you think and what advice you would share, then yes, you can do that. When it happens to me, I don’t always answer the question right away. I typically wait, or I ask more questions before I give my point of view. The reason is that I want the other person to truly work through their feelings and take a look at avenues themselves.
Most of the time, they have started working through their problems, and they just need someone to help them dig a little deeper. So I often end up not offering my advice, and many people have told me that it was helpful. I prefer to act as a sounding board rather than a solution provider. I’ve done enough of the latter in my professional life!
People need to be heard. All I do is give them a platform to express themselves.
If you can take a similar approach, it will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders when talking to someone who is going through a difficult time. The burden is not on you; it remains their challenge to overcome. You support them along the way.
You don’t know exactly how they feel
If there is a string of words to ban from your vocabulary, this would be close to the top of the list: “I know exactly how you feel.”
No. You don’t.
Let’s face it, you never know exactly how the other person feels. Even if you’ve gone through the same experience, you don’t know because every person reacts differently to the same set of circumstances.
You may have an idea of how they feel; you may be able to imagine how they feel, but you don’t know exactly how they feel.
We’re all somewhat individualistic, and at the end of the day, we like to talk about ourselves more than anyone else. This may cause us to think that how we feel is how everybody feels or should feel in a given situation. It is not the case.
Instead of saying that you know exactly how they feel, get them to express how they feel without putting yourself in the equation.
If you’ve been through something similar, then, by all means, share that experience. You can share how you felt, especially if you think it was similar to what the other person feels. You can talk about how you dealt with it and share your story — but don’t hog the conversation to make it all about you. You’re sharing your experience. The other person can take what they want from it and decide what to do with that information.
It is not the same as losing a pet
I have been in situations in the past where I lost somebody close to me. When I spoke to it with another person, they replied that they knew exactly how I felt because they felt the same way when they lost a pet.
I’m sorry, I’m not a pet owner, and I think I can understand why pet owners feel so close to their animals, but losing a human being is not the same as losing a pet.
You have interactions with another human being that you cannot have with animals. I understand that dogs make people happy. They love you unconditionally — or at least they show some form of unconditional love. I can also appreciate that when you’ve had a pet for 15 years, and they die, you feel a great sense of loss.
But, in my reality, you can’t compare that to losing a child, losing a parent, losing a spouse, or losing a best friend. It is just not the same.
I don’t know how else to explain it, and I won’t go into further detail because I’m not a pet owner. I don’t claim to fully understand one’s attachment to a pet.
However, I can say from experience that when you put the life of your pet on the same footing as the life of a human being, it will always seem quite jarring — if not insulting — to the person who doesn’t own a pet.
You don’t need all the answers
When someone tells you how they feel, it doesn’t mean that they’re looking for you to have all the answers. Sometimes we feel the pressure to provide solutions as if not having the answers means that you’re not a good friend, a good parent, a good sibling, or a good…
Nobody has all the answers. Even people who’ve gone through it. Even professionals. We don’t have all the answers.
What you do have are your experiences. If you’ve never experienced a great loss, then you can’t provide insight on how it feels or how to deal with it, and that’s fine. Just listen. It’s okay to tell the other person that you don’t have any answers or advice to provide. All you can do is be a good friend and be present.
And frankly, that’s the best anyone of us can do. Be present, listen, and care about the other person.
If you’ve been paying attention to what I wrote at the beginning, you’ll notice that I talk about my mother-in-law losing her daughter.
For those who were wondering, yes, I’m talking about my wife. Yet, until now, I hadn’t clarified that point.
Because I wanted to underscore that, even though I was having this discussion with my mother-in-law because I lost my wife, the discussion wasn’t really about me. It was about her, how she was feeling, and how she was managing through this ordeal.
When people come to us to share their experience and seek solace, a helping hand, or a sympathetic ear, I think that’s the approach we should have.
It’s not about us. It’s about them.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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