When someone you love is grieving it can be heartbreaking to watch. We automatically want to do anything we can to make their pain more bearable. In these moments, sometimes what you do can be more meaningful than what you say. Many times we put pressure on ourselves to say the “right” things. We often do this because we feel uncomfortable and want their pain to stop. And as great as that sounds, we do not have the ability to do that. Instead, we can support them. We can do this by validating the pain they are in without judgment, just listen and DON’T correct them when they speak. We can empathize with their situation and be physically present to meet practical needs. People who are grieving are often hurting so much they become disoriented and may not know what they need. You can make clear suggestions and see if anything you suggest would be helpful for them.
Acknowledge that their pain is real and the feelings and thoughts they have around it. Remember, this is a time to love and support instead of confront and correct. If they are grieving a loved one, give them a safe place to share memories and express their feelings. Another way you can support them in their pain is by offering to help with a specific task. People who are grieving are often hurting so much they become disoriented and may not know what they need. And many people will try to be supportive by asking the person in pain: “Let me know if I can do anything for you.” Instead of using vague phases, try asking if you can assist them with a particular burden. That might be bringing them dinner, cleaning up around their house, or helping with funeral arrangements.
Active listening is a great way to show support to someone who is grieving. When someone we love is grieving, a common response is to try to make them feel better or “fix them.” Even though we do this out of love and kindness it can be hurtful, especiall with a death. Those who are hurting because they lost someone don’t need advice. Instead, they will often need you to sit and listen without interrupting or judging them.
Nonverbal communication is a big part of active listening. A couple ways you can show your support is by making eye contact, nodding your head, and being aware of your facial expressions. Refuse to say things like “OK”, “I understand” and any other one word answer that can feel like you are diminishing their pain. These are all simple gestures that can go a long way when it comes to supporting a loved one who has experienced a significant loss.
A big part of being empathetic is being honest and vulnerable with the person you are talking to. It is easy to get empathy and sympathy confused when you are supporting someone who is in pain. Empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person and connect with parts of yourself that know that feeling. It is making an effort to place yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is showing feelings of pity or sorrow on someone or their circumstances. An example of sympathy would be giving a person flowers and a card after their mom has passed away. Empathy on the other hand would be taking the perspective of that person, staying out of judgment, and being able to recognize and emotionally validate their feelings.
Normalizing a person’s experience can bring them a great deal of comfort. When someone is encountering grief, they might be having thoughts and emotions that they never knew were possible. Validating these emotions can help bring acceptance to their grief experience. An example of this could be telling a person “I can see how after what happened you would feel that way.” Another instance could be saying something such as “It makes sense that you are angry with God after losing your brother in a car accident.” These statements show the individual that their thoughts are part of the grieving process and okay.
The bottom line is that everyone has a unique grief journey. Whether you are in Oklahoma City, Edmond or Japan it will be unique to that person. You have an opportunity to come alongside and be a student of what they need. This could be one of the hardest parts of their life and the love and support you give could make all the difference.
If you would like someone to help walk with you and guide you in your grief journey we are here. You do not have to walk this road alone. You can reach us at (405) 921-7776 or on the web at NewVisionCounseling.org. We look forward to hearing from you soon!
Written by Darby Hargrove and Shawn Maguire, LPC. Shawn owns New Vision Counseling and Consulting and has trained a team of therapists who help their clients achieve life changing results. Because of their success in helping clients heal and come alive they are currently the top rated and reviewed counseling practice in Oklahoma.