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Grief can happen at the least expected moments, it might be a teenager who has had his or her young heart broken, it might be someone who has just been diagnosed with a life threatening illness, someone who has lost an animal companion, someone going through a divorce – or who is grieving the death of a loved one.

Grief can take place anywhere, anytime and suddenly. We can be going along our merry way then suddenly something happens and our world is taken from us. Most people have no idea what to say or how to support someone in grief. We slip into general statements such as “Time will heal,” when right in that moment time may seem like a strange notion for the person grieving.

When my sister’s husband died suddenly at the age of 38, and she was left to raise her 2, 4, 6 and 8 year old children on her own; she confided in me a few weeks after his passing “People miss him terribly and they try to say the right thing – but actually all they talk about is how sad they are – I find myself supporting them in their grief rather than the other way around.”

We all want to help, and by nature fix it. Grief expert Doris Zagdanski who has written several books on the subject including most recently “Stuck for Words.” says that we need to have conscious thoughts about what we say in the moments with them.

Five of the things that people say often that are not constructive are:

“Time will heal, you’ve got to give it time.”
“I know how you feel, I lost some one dear to me recently.”
At least she’s not suffering any more.”
“You’ve got to stay positive, she wouldn’t want you to be thinking like that.”
“She had a good innings.”
These are the clichés that most people use (or variations on the same theme) when trying to comfort a grieving person. Be honest; how many times have you told a friend who has recently split from a relationship “there are plenty of other fish in the sea”? From where they sit – the ocean is barren… because they only had eyes for one fish.

To be supportive of someone grieving is to give up the standard words and create a sense of relatedness. It is all about them and their experience of life – in that moment… not about you or what you have experienced in the past. In that moment the grieving person believes no one else could possibly understand their pain.

Grief is in the heart not the head – all the logical statements that may well be ‘true’ do nothing to acknowledge the pain being experienced.

So what to do.

Be in his or her world. Listen with big ears and an open heart. Do not try to fix anything. Have empathy and reflect back what you hear from them. As you listen things will pop into your head that will be relevant. But silence may work too. It is important to dance in the conversation – be there for them not for you.

Some words that could show empathy – if the conversation went that way :

“Yeah you must miss her terribly.”
“Your world has been turned upside down.”
“It must seem very scary.”
“It sounds like there are so many things to adjust to.”
In speaking with Doris, who has worked in this area for three decades she said that being able to move people to a place where they are grateful for what they did have can get them on a path forward. Shifting people from loss to gratitude takes empathy, support and comfort.

In addition to the books Doris has written she has a small book that might be of value. “33 Things to say when you know someone who is grieving.”

Let me know your thoughts.

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