• A nine-year-old girl, lying on a bed crying in the days after her older brother’s sudden death, is told by an aunt that she should stop crying and take her younger brothers outside to play, to show their parents they are OK.
• A young mother, attempting to share with friends her fears about her son’s recent diagnosis, is told; “At least he’s not dying.”
• A woman hears the words, “He’s not suffering anymore” when her beloved father-in-law dies and many years later is told, “Don’t withdraw from your friends like last time” upon sharing the news that her sister-in-law had just died.
• Parents of a stillborn baby are told, “Give it time, you’re only young, you can try again.”
• A 14 year-old-boy begins to cry upon hearing a song that triggers memories of a peer’s funeral and is told by his uncle, “You need to get over it.”
In each of these cases, the individuals needed to have their grief acknowledged rather than dismissed, diminished, disregarded or misunderstood.
In August each year the National Association for Loss and Grief (NALAG) invites individuals, families and communities to acknowledge grief. We’re encouraged to celebrate the many healthy and life-giving ways in which people can and do recognise and express grief. To do this, it helps to have an awareness of some of the advice that, while well-intentioned, could be making others feel worse as well as magnifying their grief by interrupting, impairing and inhibiting the natural process of accepting, processing, adapting to and integrating loss.
Think about the implications of this well-intentioned but unhelpful advice.
• “I know how you feel.”
• “I’ve been through this myself, here’s what worked for me...”
• “At least s/he is now at peace.” “S/he’s better off now.” “S/he’s in a better place now.”
• “It’s time you were over this. Haven’t you moved on yet?”
• “It’s time to put this behind you and get on with your life.
• “It was God’s will. God never gives us more than we can handle.”
• “Time heals all wounds.”
• “We all have something we are dealing with.”
• “You shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
• “Try to think about all the good times you had together.”
• “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
• “Cheer up. S/he wouldn’t want you to be this sad.”
• “It’ll be all right soon, you’ll see you’ll get through this – you’re a strong person.” • “At least s/he’s out of pain/not suffering anymore.”
• “You’re the man of the house now.”
• “I don’t know what I would do if my [deceased’s relationship to the bereaved] died.”
• “At least the death was quick so there wasn’t pain.”
• “At least you had time to prepare and to say goodbye.”
• “Don’t worry, you’ll feel better soon.”
• “You’re young. You can always have another child.”
• “It could be worse.”
• “At least s/he lived a long life, many people die young.”
• “I guess it was his/her time to go.”
• “S/he died doing something s/he loved.”
• “Everything happens for a reason, life goes on.”
• “S/he’s gone to sleep. S/he’s happy in heaven.”
• “S/he brought this on her/himself.”
• “You need to busy yourself in your work/study/social life.”
• “You are better off without her/ him anyway.”
• “Now you can have some closure.”
• “S/he was a bad [deceased’s relationship to the bereaved] anyway.”
Unfortunately, it’s not only our words that can leave a grieving person feeling hurt, irritated, invalidated and unsupported. We might find ourselves asking about the loss but then quickly change the topic, talk only about ourselves or even avoid contact altogether. We may offer to help, or promise to visit, but never do so. If we do listen, we may do so impatiently or with a sense of judgement or intolerance.
Sometimes our responses may be in the form of constructive problem-solving and practical advice and can actually be quite helpful – but only if they come at the right time and if they are preceded by caring and empathy (The Reality Slap, Russ Harris p26-27, 2012).
It’s important to recognise that most people are genuine in their attempts to help or support a grieving person. Society, however, hasn’t taught us what to say or do. As we recognise Grief Awareness Month, let us find ways to listen compassionately to those who are grieving as this will help to acknowledge their loss. Asking someone, “Do you feel like talking?” empowers him/her to take the lead in telling and retelling their story and aids in processing grief. Sometimes listening may require us to sit in silence with the bereaved person. Seasons for Growth® Companions and the many other people who have sat silently with someone in their grief have found this to be very powerful, and comforting for the one grieving.
There are no perfect responses to loss and we may never quite get the words just right. There probably are no perfect words. However, compassionate understanding and loving concern are real, and so, in the midst of our awkwardness, as we struggle for something to say, we can remember that one of the greatest gifts we can offer a grieving person is the “’art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf Exodus 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which heals, liberates and encourages growth” (n169 Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel).
In the Hunter region, the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, through the Catholic Schools Office and the Office of Life and Faith, seeks to acknowledge and support grieving individuals, their families and communities through the Seasons for Growth® program. For more information about the program or to access grief support please contact Jenny/Benita P 4979 1355 E firstname.lastname@example.org or CatholicCare Counselling Services P 4979 1172 E email@example.com.