What to say to someone dealing with a loss
By Barbara Rudnick • JFCS Family Life Education Program Manager
We will all experience major losses in our lives. Whether it is the death of a loved one, losing one’s home or job, a divorce, a medical diagnosis, chronic illness, etc., these are the losses that shake us to our core. These are the losses that disrupt our equilibrium and throw us off balance. These are the losses that affect every fiber of our being and send us into emotional turmoil. These are the losses that send us on the grieving path.
The healing process for the pain that accompanies loss is grief. Healthy grieving is often intense and difficult. It is a life-changing journey. Traveling through the erratic and unpredictable stages of shock, denial, anger, sadness, panic, loneliness and isolation is an emotional rollercoaster. A person might be sad, moody, forgetful, angry, controlling and exhausted – sometimes all in one day! S/he may encounter road blocks and detours such as guilt, regrets, anxiety and isolation. There is no suitcase to pack for this voyage – the necessities are endurance, courage and community. For some, the journey may take months; for others it may take years.
Grieving is a normal and necessary response to loss. Grief is not a mental illness and even though a person may feel or act like they are going crazy, they are not. Men, women and children all grieve differently. Although this is often an unpleasant experience, ignoring the loss and not doing the grief work doesn’t help because healing can’t happen until we address it.
No one, even royalty, can escape doing this work. Prince Harry recently said, “I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life, but my work as well…” In an interview with The Telegraph, he disclosed that he sought counseling (with the advice and support from his family) after enduring two years of “total chaos” while still struggling in his late 20s to come to terms with the death of his mother. When a child experiences a significant loss, s/he will continue to grieve at different developmental stages throughout her/his life.
Talking is healing, and working with a counselor and/or attending a support group can be very helpful. No one should grieve alone. In a Time magazine article, writer Belinda Luscombe says,
“…the bereaved are often treated like those to whom something unnatural or disgraceful has happened. People avoid them; don’t invite them out, fall silent when they enter the room. The grieving are often isolated when they most need community.”
As a professional who has worked with grieving people for the past 25 years, I know that caring communities of family and friends can make a huge difference. Listening can ease sorrow, lift sadness and lessen pain. The following are some suggestions:
- The most meaningful words to a grieving person are “I’m sorry about your loss.” Statements that we think will be helpful such as: “Be glad s/he didn’t suffer.” “Don’t worry about the children. Kids are resilient and they bounce back.” “You’re a strong person. I know you’ll do well.” “Give yourself a year.” “That wasn’t the right job for you anyway.” or “S/he was a jerk and you’re better off without her/him.” do not make the person in pain feel better.
- When a loved one has died, share fond memories of the person who has died and give the griever opportunities to talk about and remember her/his loved one. This may cause tears, which is ok, and it also gives comfort.
- When the loss is the result of a life-changing event like the loss of a job, divorce, illness, etc. accept the person where they are at. You can’t force someone to be happy or feel better, but you can assure them that you will be there for them. Invite them to a meal, watch a movie with them, or go for a walk together. Find activities that are not expensive, but can provide a much needed, temporary distraction. This also helps reduce loneliness and isolation.
- Call the person regularly – whether it is daily, weekly or monthly. Feeling cared for and thought about means a lot. Do not be discouraged or offended if your friend does not feel up to talking. S/he will appreciate your thoughtfulness. Keep calling.
- Send a card, email or text that says, “Thinking of You.” Sometimes we feel that we need to be profound or poetic. Just reminding someone that we care is enough.
- Holidays and anniversaries are especially painful times. Continue to include your friend in your celebrations and be understanding if s/he are unable to participate. Sometimes s/he will not feel strong enough to come, but other times they will.
- Avoid sentences beginning with “You should…” A grieving person needs time to figure out what s/he needs to do. Be a good listener, and ask if advice is wanted before giving it.
- Only make promises that you are sure you can keep. The future may feel very uncertain and scary depending on a person’s loss. Having positive things to look forward to is very important.
JFCS understands that every loss is unique and offers a variety of services to support those dealing with loss. Please call us at 952-546-0616 if you would like more information. All calls are confidential.