Sydney-based grief counsellor and psychotherapist Debbie Dunn suggests that grief is not a problem to be “fixed”, but a natural and necessary process to be supported.
“Being physically present and just listening is more powerful than anything you may try to say,” she says. Dunn believes that circumstances are as diverse as the people involved, and hence it may be more helpful to consider what not to say. “For example, I strongly advise people not to use language that may in any way minimises a person’s loss.”
Saying something, however, is better than saying nothing at all, says Mark Vernon, author of What Not to Say (Hachette): “The aim is not to say the right thing, it’s just to say something so that the person you are with can talk. Don’t speak too much. Say something simple, and then be prepared to listen.”
Whatever you do, the pundits agree, it’s important to show you care and to be aware that what you say will not make a griever’s pain go away, but it may alleviate some of the sorrow.
What NOT to say: “I know what you’re going through…”
The alternative – validate a person’s feelings: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I care and realise you are in pain.”
What NOT to say: “Call me if you need anything.”
The alternative: Take the lead. Suggest practical help: “Can I do the grocery shopping, or pick up the kids?”
What NOT to say: “It will get better; time heals all wounds.”
The alternative: Relate to how the grieving person is feeling now: “It must be so difficult for you.”
What NOT to say: “Don’t cry; cheer up.”
The alternative: Allow them to express their feelings: “Cry. It’s OK. I understand. I’m here for you.”
What NOT to say: “Your loved one is waiting for you on the other side. It was meant to happen.”
The alternative: Be sensitive about people’s spiritual beliefs: “You’re in my thoughts” is more general.
What NOT to say: “Let’s not dwell on the past.”
The alternative: Remember that happy memories alleviate the pain: “Remember the time when…”
What NOT to say: “When this happened to me…”
The alternative: Be prepared to listen and allow the person grieving to speak: “When you’re ready to talk, I’m here to listen.”
What NOT to say: “Let’s not talk about it; it’ll upset you too much.”
The alternative: Speaking about it helps it sink in. Each time a story is told it changes the brain chemistry, so become a compassionate listener.