Suppose there is someone in your social network who has lost a loved one. You want to support that person during the grieving process.
What should you say and do? Research shows that in many cases, your instincts will be completely wrong. The mourner is likely to view your support attempts as inappropriate and possibly even harmful.
There are three reasons why we often say the wrong things:
- The prospect of interacting with someone who is grieving may elicit feelings of social discomfort. We are not sure what to say and we do not want to make them feel even worse.
- Conversing with a grieving person can evoke feelings of helplessness because objectively, there is little we can say or do to help.
- Such interactions may also enhance feelings of vulnerability, because they make us realize that bad things can happen at any time.
What Not To Say
Studies indicate that our negative feelings interfere with our ability to provide effective support. We try to get through the interaction without increasing our own stress level or that of the bereaved. And because we are uncomfortable, we tend to fall back on remarks that are part of our cultural understanding of how to help others. This results in several kinds of support attempts, which are listed below. Each is followed by actual examples provided by bereaved individuals:
- Offering Platitudes
“Time heals all wounds.”
“You have so much to be thankful for.”
“It’s time for you to move on.”
- Minimizing the Problem
“It was only a baby you didn’t know.”
“You can always have another one.”
“You had many good years together.”
“At least he’s not a vegetable.”
- Giving Unsolicited Advice
“Now that your husband is gone, you should consider getting a dog. They’re wonderful companions.”
“You should not be going out to the cemetery every day.”
- Providing a Religious or Philosophical Perspective
“God needed him more than you did.”
“She’s a flower in God’s Garden.”
“He’s in a better place now.”
- Claiming to Know How the Bereaved Person Feels
“I know how you feel about the death of your husband. My husband and I got a divorce last year and it has been very hard.”
“On the same day that my wife died, her cousin told me that she knew how I felt because her dog had died after a long illness.”
These kinds of remarks often seem to trivialize or dismiss the mourner’s problems. Ironically, such comments are more likely to be made by relatives and close friends than by strangers or casual acquaintances. Perhaps those closest to the mourner feel more comfortable offering advice.
What Not to Do
In many cases, our feelings of social discomfort, helplessness and vulnerability lead us to avoid contact with bereaved individuals or to behave in ways that they find upsetting.
One woman whose child was murdered indicated that people avoided her at the supermarket. This was so painful to her that she drove to the next town to do her grocery shopping.
As another mother explained after the death of her daughter, “I feel like I have the plague.” Therapist Therese Rando has noted that bereaved parents are the most stigmatized and avoided because their loss represents the worst fears of others.
- Conversational Avoidance
“I needed to talk about what happened to my husband, but when I brought it up to my closest friend for the second time, she became visibly annoyed. ‘You already told me that,’ she said.”
“It is so offensive when a person talks about everything except my dead son.”
- Asking Inappropriate Questions
It is common for people to blurt out questions that cause distress for survivors. They may ask for details about the death (“How badly was the car damaged? How fast was your son driving at the time?”); about money (“How are you going to spend all of that insurance money”); or about the loved one’s possessions (“What are you going to do with his tools?”)
- Derogating or Blaming the Bereaved or the Deceased
A woman whose child was killed in a motor vehicle crash indicated that she was called an “unfit mother” because she let her young children ride with a seventeen-year-old aunt.
A woman’s husband was killed while riding a motorcycle. She noted that, “My husband was killed shortly after we moved to Chicago. Several people suggested that I should not have moved the family to that area.”
Research has shown that the more distressed the bereaved person appears to be, the more discomfort this will evoke in others, and the more they will avoid, derogate or blame the mourner. This means that those who are most in need of support may be least likely to get it.
Of course, we do not always respond inappropriately in our interactions with the bereaved. Some mourners report that their friends have been wonderful. But research suggests that insensitive responses to the bereaved, such as those described above, are quite common. They are experienced as painful, and they often leave the bereaved feeling that others do not understand what they are going through. One mother who had lost her only son stated that, “Everywhere we have turned, we have experienced such a lack of compassion that we are nearly insane.”
Give Us Your Thoughts
What do the experts have to say about how to support someone who is grieving? If you have experienced the death of someone close to you, you are certainly one of the experts. Drawing from your own experience, please share examples of times when people said or did things that were unhelpful. Please let us know how this made you feel. By so doing, you can help to educate us further about support attempts that fail. If we really understand what not to do, this will help us focus our attention on what to do. This will be the subject of my next blog post.
Finkbeiner, A. K. (1996). After the death of a child: Living with loss through the years. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lehman, D. R., Ellard, J. H., & Wortman, C. B. (1986). Social support for the bereaved: Recipients’ and providers’ perspectives on what is helpful. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 54, 438-446.
Rando, T. A. (1993). Treatment of complicated mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Wortman, C. B. & Boerner, K. (2007). Beyond the myths of coping with loss: Prevailing assumptions versus scientific evidence. In H. S. Friedman & R. C. Silver (Eds.), Foundations of health psychology (pp. 285-324). New York: Oxford University Press.