How to Talk to People who have been Bereaved
With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is becoming increasingly likely that you will unexpectedly find yourself talking to someone who has recently lost a loved one. This can feel very daunting, as it throws up fears of saying the wrong thing and somehow making things worse. These fears are very valid – we have probably all experienced clumsy and tactless attempts from others to make us feel better when we have been bereaved ourselves.
Talking to people without causing hurt or offence depends on handling two things: what you feel, and what you say.
WHAT YOU FEEL – MANAGING YOUR OWN EMOTIONS
The key thing here is to notice what you are feeling – what is the grief and loss of the other person triggering in you? We can experience a range of reactions, such as wanting to recoil from the unpleasantness of the situation or identifying some sort of sadness of our own, or wanting to fix it. Our emotions can include feelings of being trapped, powerless, overwhelmed, feelings of sadness or grief – or all of these. When you notice these in yourself you can act from a place of self-awareness, which helps you to manage what you say.
To handle these emotions, bring your awareness to the pit of your stomach – the solar plexis. When we are under stress we feel our self-awareness in our head (“My head’s away with it”, “I’m like a headless chicken” etc.). Bringing our awareness deeper helps to “ground” us, so that we can be present in the situation and handle things as they come.
WHAT YOU SAY – USING YOUR VOICE
People can be hurt or offended not only by what is said, but also by how it is said. So it’s vital to pay attention to how your voice is sounding – keep your tone gentle and soft. Take an approach of gentle enquiry, and don’t be afraid to show interest and concern. It doesn’t mean you’re nosey!
When the other person tells you they have been bereaved – check out your own emotions, ground yourself, express sympathy – “I’m very sorry to hear that.” Don’t be afraid to express empathy and your own emotional reaction, eg. “It must be a horrible time for you.”
Listen to what they tell you – keep your mind focused on the other person, not on what your own reactions are going to be. Explore what it’s in their mind, not your own.
When it comes to use of language, our greatest concern is probably fear of saying the wrong thing.
We have all come across thoughtless one-liners that people say, which only hurt the other person. These tend to come from a desire to “fix it”. If you are well grounded, you won’t fall into this trap.
Here are some pointers:
- Never, ever use a sentence beginning with “At least”. (“At least they had a good innings”, “At least you have other children” – we all know the sort of thing).
- If you do happen to say the wrong thing, it will not necessarily be hurtful, and may be very easily cleared up. Eg.
- You: “You must be feeling very frightened” (fair enough assumption)
- Other: “No, I’m okay actually” (they’re stronger than we thought)
- You: “Oh that’s good. I’m glad you’re feeling okay” (no harm done)
- Summarise what you think they’ve said, to show you’ve been listening. Again, if you get something wrong, it’s not the end of the world – by summarising it you’ve given them the chance to correct you.
- React with empathy. Let them tell their story, and if tears come acknowledge them. You might say something like “I can hear the grief” or “I can see the grief.” The story may be an awful one. Imagine how you would feel – but don’t word it as “I”. Word it as an observation of their story – make it about them, don’t make it about you. For example:
- Other: “And when they took him away in the ambulance that was the last time I ever saw him.”
- You: “That sounds horrific for you.”
- Other: “It was. Yes, horrific.”
Or perhaps you didn’t quite get that right – again, don’t worry:
- Other: “No, the most horrific part was the phone call I got from the ward.”
- You: “That was the worst part.”
- Other: “Yes. That was the worst.”
Emotional conversations are always the most difficult ones. A key thing to remember is that we are all emotional beings and this is fine. It’s how we are designed. Our society has conditioned us to act tough; generations have feared and denied the vulnerability of our feelings. Perhaps if there’s one good thing to come out of these current times, it is that we are recognising the need to acknowledgeHo and share this aspect of our humanity without shame.