Difficult Conversations: grief

What do you say when someone dies? What do you say when someone you know is going through a situation so difficult that you don’t know how they will cope? What do you say when you fear that whatever you say may be intrusive, insensitive, inadequate, may even make things worse?

This article was written by Lesley Garner, Author and Journalist.

Unlike other difficult conversations where decisions must be made, the essence of a helpful conversation about grief is to say as little as possible. The work of helping a grieving person is practical, certainly, but essentially it is one of being present without trying to fix the unfixable. It is an ongoing, unhurried conversation in which you are side by side, listening. It lasts as long as it needs to last. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime.

There are different ways of communication with people who are grieving. One is avoidance of communication at all. You see the bereaved person in the street but you don’t know what to say so you cross the road and move on, feeling bad. Next time, you tell yourself, you will have worked out what to say. If the bereaved person is aware of your avoidance this only adds to the sense of loss and isolation that can come with bereavement.

Fortunately for the vast majority of people round the world human societies have evolved a range of behaviours, ceremonies and rituals that commemorate the dead and support those left behind. At the heart of the mourning period is a humane coming together, an acknowledgement of pain, lively commemoration of the person we have lost and a network of practical and emotional support.

Unfortunately, in a modern secular society these practices are in decline and the humanity is in danger of departing with the persona loss.

They do it differently in more traditional societies. I was on a Greek island when I saw the neighbours coming and going to the house of a villager who had just died and I saw the same gathering in a town in Southern Ireland, neighbours queuing at the door. At a wake all emotions can be released in the comforting company of others. Food, drink, song, storytelling celebrate the spirit of the person who is gone but not forgotten and the result is catharsis, a release of unexpressed pain and a conduit for natural sorrow. At the heart of all of this is the simple sitting with the bereaved.

At its grandest the formality of a state funeral, with its rituals, drums and hoofbeats, releases something in all of us. But expressions of mourning are for everybody. In Mexico for the Day of the Dead I was moved by the loving seriousness and concentration with which ordinary people knelt side by side and created, out of flowers, photographs and favourite objects, images of their remembered ancestors. When Mexican families take picnics of their favourite foods to the cemeteries where they have decorated and candlelit the gravestones of their family members it’s an occasion for celebration and joyous remembrance as well as sadness.

Our task, at the loss of a friend or a relative, is to join in the collective comforting of those who grieve. Avoid saying anything well-meaning but actually dismissive which cuts off this natural process. Try not to say, “ I know how you feel”. You don’t. Everyone is different. Try not to say “ It’s for the best” or “ Time heals all wounds.” Grief is huge and slow. It can’t be hurried or dismissed or rationalized. Personally, I think the simple Irish expression, “ I’m sorry for your loss”, can’t be bettered. It acknowledges the pain. It doesn’t presume to know how the other is feeling. It is the simplest expression of sympathy.

And when you’ve said that, what do you say next? As little as possible. Let the bereaved person take the lead, listen and stay alert for what they might need.

This could be very practical. Death creates a huge amount of work. Your expertise, companionship, domestic skills might be useful in the seemingly endless tasks of administration and clearing up. Above all, be prepared for this to be a long slow conversation. Great harm is done, especially to children, by avoiding and bottling up difficult feelings. When we include the dead, as well as the living, in our conversations, we become part of an essential healing process. There is a caveat. Sometimes people get stuck in grief. Sometimes grief can trigger other physical, emotional or family issues, leaving people with ongoing distress or preventing them from reconstructing their lives. If this seems to be happening there is another conversation to be had. It may be that the bereaved person needs psychotherapeutic or medical help in which case sympathetic friends and family who have kept the channels of communication open can be vital in helping them find what they need. You don’t know the answer but if you observe and listen you can help someone suffering from loss to find their own way.

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