Awwwkwaaard……that lull in a conversation that we try to avoid like the plague.  Sometimes it’s after we’ve said something, and we can tell by the look on the other person’s face, the quick downward cut of their eyes, or how abruptly they change the subject, that we said something that didn’t land quite right.  We’ve all been there…or we’ve been on the other side, when someone says something and we know they mean well, but it’s like an arrow in our heart, a kick in the gut, or an unwelcomed pinch.

“There are more fish in the sea… you deserve better.”

“Buck up.”

“They had a full life.”

“You’re not the only one to go through this…some people have it worse.”

“God will never give you more than you can handle…”

And for the briefest moment, you want to throat punch them, but that would be more awkward, so instead we smile, nod, and move on.

When someone has experienced a loss or gone through a big change in life, it can be very hard to talk about it.  Hearing someone’s grief naturally brings up our own memories of loss and with that our own sense of helplessness about how to deal with it.  Culturally we have learned how to contain, control, minimize, and avoid difficult or uncomfortable feelings.  In fact we have learned a lot about how to do that for others as well, which is why we are so good at saying things in an attempt to help them not feel bad.

Makes sense.

Unfortunately, it rarely helps.  They already feel what they feel and guess what, it isn’t “good.” So then they might feel bad for feeling bad. In an attempt to make things better, we can unintentionally make things worse.  When this happens to us, we feel more alone in our grief and less likely to want to talk about it.

Deep down what we want is comfort.  Comfort comes through connection and hearing that we’re not “crazy” for feeling all the complex and even conflicting feelings we may have.  These are tough conversations and they take time and energy.  Here are a few reminders of what not to say to avoid the landmines of offense.  And if you’ve been on the receiving end of these things too many times, now is the chance to read and throw your finger at the screen screaming, “Exactly, I hate it when people do that!”

·         Don’t be silent.  We may think, “I don’t want to bring it up…they probably don’t want to talk about it anyway.”  This is rarely the case if we truly make it safe for them to share what they are already carrying alone inside.  They may express more emotion and that’s OK. It may get messy but that doesn’t mean it is worse.  [More another time on why I don’t recommend passing someone tissues].  Even if you don’t know what to say, humbly wade into the waters and try.

·         Don’t take the mic.  As humans we are rapidly computing the information coming in and naturally trying to access relevant files in our brain.  This often leads to us remembering one of our stories or the story of our friend’s cousin’s plumber.  When we shift into story time, on some level we may want to let the person know they are not alone.  However, what we are unintentionally doing is taking the reins of the conversation.  They may hear this as a comparison to their experience or may even feel like they are supposed to be comforting you.

·         Don’t say, “I know how you feel.”  At best you know how you felt when you may have gone through something similar.  Since every person and every relationship is unique, it’s not helpful to imply that we know or can compare our losses.  Plus, it kind of takes back the focus again.

·         If you start saying, “At least…” just STOP. Immediately.  We have learned this little trick to try and lead people away from their pain, but pain is an indication that something was important, so don’t take that away.  They may gain perspective later.  They may feel grateful LATER. Right now it just hurts, dammit.  Saying, “At least you have your other kids” or “at least you can get another dog” minimizes the unique value of their loss and their individual experience.  Brene Brown mentions the “at least” in her great video about the difference between Empathy and Sympathy.

·         Don’t resort to Myths, Clichés, Intellectual Statements, and Spiritual Shortcuts.  In the Grief Recovery Method that I use in working with individuals and groups, we spend 2 weeks peeling back the layers of what we have learned to cover up and hopscotch over our pain because we never got the tools to work through unresolved grief.  These are things like “It just takes time”, “They’re better off,” or “Just have faith.”  There may be a grain of truth in some of the things people say, but that doesn’t help a broken heart.  They may be the wisdom we personally glean after years of traveling the healing path—regardless; they are unhelpful responses in the midst of grief. Download the free eBook, The Six Major Myths About Grief.

Slow down, Superstar!  Even in your best efforts, at first you will still say unhelpful things because we have learned them from a young age.  That’s ok.  Next, you may feel like a paralyzed ‘possum and not want to say anything (helplessness again, doh!)  So here are a few go-to things to try out next time someone is sharing about a hurt, disappointment, or loss. They won’t all work for everyone, but the intention is to convey your openness to be with them IN it rather than trying to sweep and shuffle past the hard stuff.

1.       “What happened?” This simply says “I care enough to want to know more”, so be ready to really listen and not slip into advice giving, analyzing, etc. The gift of listening without interruption is a huge gift!

2.       “I CAN’T imagine…” Ironically, this is saying “I AM trying to imagine what this is like for you” without being presumptuous or putting words in their mouth. Imagining how we felt with our loss can help us access empathy and compassion, but it’s not our turn to share. You may miss your dad; they may be relieved theirs is gone….and feeling guilty about feeling relieved. Let them have the mic. Again, be ready to listen.

3.       “You’re not ‘crazy’.” This is a stigmatizing label anyway, and sometimes we need to hear that our feelings are natural and normal even when they are intense, confusing, or unpredictable. Plus, this often introduces some gentle humor and may put them at ease to share more of the thoughts and feelings they have been censoring.

4.        “What do you wish had been different/better?” Sometimes it’s not obvious what the “loss” is that someone experienced—it may have been a bad work experience or a big change in life. Asking this question starts to get at the intangible and ambiguous losses and helps them to name them and give their heart a voice.

5.       “Wow, this sounds really hard/complicated. I’m here with you.” No need for advice or a pithy quote. They may not be ready to talk right away. For good reasons, we’ve learned to be guarded. The best thing you can do is consistently extend the invitation and build trust that you won’t step all over their toes when they do open up.

The more comfortable you become with your own grief, they more you can be there for others. With practice you may be surprised to discover how much you stretch and can tolerate the awkward pauses…and where that actually allows the conversation to flow and connection to happen.

Let her rip—what are some unhelpful or ridiculous things you’ve heard people say? I want to know what you really needed to hear instead.

Tamara Hanna, LPC, specializes in grief recovery, couples counseling and spiritual trauma.