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How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss

By Linda Carroll on Thursday September 1st, 2016

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Five Ways to Help When You Feel There is Nothing You Can Do

It’s not about saying the right things. It’s about doing the right things. ~ Unknown

Years ago, my family and I moved to a bucolic little town in New Zealand, where we were immediately swept up into a group of ex-pats and locals. We felt deeply connected to this community by the time I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy in the local hospital.

When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur. Twenty-four hours later, he died.

In the days and weeks that followed, I wandered in my own fog of grief as I went about the necessary tasks of ordinary life: shopping for food, taking our other kids to school, doing the usual mounds of laundry.

Meanwhile, my new friends kept their distance. I saw them take great care to avoid me: to cross the street, switch supermarket aisles, literally do an about-face when they saw me coming.

Invitations stopped coming. The phone went silent. My grief was marked by a deeper isolation than I’d ever known.

When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur. When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur.

Later, many of these people apologized. They told me they were terribly sad and distressed about what had happened, but hadn’t known what to say. My loss was so enormous that words seemed inadequate, even pitiful.

They said nothing, out of fear that they would say the wrong thing.

This sort of experience repeats itself in many different forms: a friend gets dumped by the love of her life, a colleague is given notice at a job he’s held for two decades, or a loved one receives the dreaded news that she has inoperable cancer.

What can you say?

While it’s not an easy question to answer, one thing is certain: It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. Here are five ways to respond helpfully to people who have suffered an enormous loss.

It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing.

1. Manage your own feelings first.

When we learn that disaster has befallen a loved one, we initially feel shock. Our heart rate increases, our thoughts either speed up or slow down, and we may experience nausea or dizziness.

The anxiety we feel is real and personal. Our instinct, though, is to ignore it, find ways to numb it or minimize it. That’s a mistake.

If we address our own anxiety first, we’ll be in a much stronger position to respond well to the person most directly affected. Do the things you know how to do to manage stress. A walk in the woods, some meditation or yoga, or talking to a trusted friend can help.

Make sure your own body and emotions are regulated before you turn to the person in grief.

2. Now focus on the other person.

Remember that the isolation they feel is almost as painful as the shock and the sadness of the loss itself. If you avoid them because you don’t know what to say, this avoidance serves only your needs.

Our friends and other loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.

Although there isn’t a right thing to say, there are some things to never say. They include the current favorite, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “I know just how you feel.” How do you know there’s a reason, and what difference would it make to a grieving person, anyway? And you don’t know how they feel—only they do.

Our friends and other loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.Our loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.

3. Admit that you don’t know what to say.

That’s a good start. Try something simple that breaks the ice and starts a conversation, or at least sends a message to the other person that they’re not alone.

“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I wish I could say the perfect thing, but I know there’s nothing to fix it. I just wanted you to know I care and am here with you.”

4. Listen.

If the person is willing to talk, listen. It’s the single most vital thing you can do.

Listen to their story without interrupting. Don’t turn the conversation back to you with statements like, “I know what you’re going through—my dog died last year.”

Don’t tell them what they will, or should, feel. Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.

We all have different styles of managing shock and distress. Some people are angry, while others seem numb. Still others turn to gallows humor. Your job is not to correct them but to give them space to be the way they need to be.

Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.

5. Rather than saying, ”Let me know if I can do anything,” offer to do something practical and specific.

Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful. Offer to shop for groceries, run errands, drive the kids somewhere, or to cook a meal or two. Ask if you can call tomorrow, or if they want to be left alone for a few days.

When Survey Monkey’s CEO Dave Goldberg died suddenly, his wife, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote the following:

When I am asked, “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, “My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?” When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful.Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful.

Today, as I recall the loss of my own infant son, I think about the one person who did truly comfort me. She arrived at my house with a bottle of fine brandy and said, “This is everyone’s worst nightmare. I am so, so sorry this has happened.”

Then we sat on the lawn and she poured me a drink as she listened to every horrible detail.

As I look back now, I still feel how much her gesture helped me cope through those early days of pain. She didn’t try to fix me or try to make sense of what happened. She didn’t even try to comfort me. The comfort she gave came through her being in it with me.

You can’t fix what happened, but you can sit with someone, side by side, so they don’t feel quite so alone. That requires only intention, a willingness to feel awkward, and an open, listening heart. It’s the one gift that can make a difference.

Feature Image: Artist Unknown.

Read Next: What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone.

This article was republished with permission from tinybuddha.com.

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Words By Linda Carroll

Originally posted on Tiny Buddha

 

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33 Comments on "How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss"

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ailina777
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ailina777

I lost my husband 2 months ago. One of my best friends and a devout catholic said to me over and over again: God doesn´t make mistakes, God doesn´t make mistakes. It was SO hurtful, it made me feel much worst. I know it´s not easy finding the right things to say and she probably didn´t mean to make me feel bad, but she did. Her words keep coming back to me.

Vicki Hartnett
Guest
Vicki Hartnett
First I am so sorry for the loss of your husband..It does come down to people thinking they are saying a good thing. When my son passed I heard things like “he is in a better place” you need to learn to move on etc. It drove me nuts. When we suffer such a great loss, I think part of us is angry and finds an outlet for it. I never felt angry but it was easy to get upset with such statements..I think I was just angry with death. When people have never lost a husband or a child,… Read more »
Brian Sky
Guest
Brian Sky
You are definitely on the right track. Gj pointing out the painof koving through the experience that led you to cultivate the strength and awareness to realize your son was right the whole titimeHe didnt even have to experience the pain and still knew the answer you essentially just waited to come around to. All this stems from ignorance. In fact there is no death as humans paint it to be as some abyss awful blah blah blah. Paint a better picture for crying out loud. Even if its not verifiable for you at the time why would you take… Read more »
suzannelehman
Guest
suzannelehman

I am so sorry for your loss and even more sorry for the responses that cause a deepening pain.

Brian Sky
Guest
Brian Sky

Enabler

Brian Sky
Guest
Brian Sky

Doesn’t help. Makes it worse. If your kid was on drugs would you buy them dope? Why is this so hard and confusing? Madness..

Brian Sky
Guest
Brian Sky
She is responsible for her thoughts as well as her pain. As are you. As am I. There is no debate on the truth of the matter. The respnses did not deepen her pain. In fact it was her narrow perspective, and uncontrolled ungaurded thoughts. Now multiply this small examoke of two very confused people interacting with one another and just because they fail to THINK end up causing and adding to what is already a painful experience times that by the mahority of humanity and you will never have to whonder why when something is negative in our colture,… Read more »
disqus_etY7ssZAI7
Guest
disqus_etY7ssZAI7

Really touched a nerve on this one didn’t we? Go ahead and reply to yourself when no one’s asking you to one more time, why don’t you?

Brian Sky
Guest
Brian Sky

Thats all you got? Fail.

disqus_etY7ssZAI7
Guest
disqus_etY7ssZAI7

Aw shucks, I failed!

RevNagi
Guest
RevNagi

I’m interested in your background and your knowledge in these situations.

Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean

Cold-hearted bastard.

Brian Sky
Guest
Brian Sky
Thats what brings you pain. Avoidance of exapnded awareness. If you dont like that comment “God doesnt make mistakes” which is true btw except there is no old man in the sky but thats a topic for another time then you musy be asking for someone to what? Cry with you? You’re already in pain thats not enougj? Now you want to bring others down to your level so thatyou can what? Feel better? Doesnt make so much sense when one actually THINKS about it. Now your thoughts create your reality. There is no debate. Why would there be any… Read more »
Efrem Hug
Guest
Efrem Hug

Just STFU.. Nothing you’ve said here helps anyone. You can also stop defending the “Everything happens for a reason” BS… Feel free to say it to those who share your faith, but this ain’t the place

Alex
Guest
Alex

Super smug, man. Not a good look.

Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean
Irene, I’m so sorry for your loss. If people say things you don’t want to hear it is probably out of feelings of their own inadequecy. Who dares to speak for God? Your own beliefs are what’s real for you and what another says doesn’t matter. They are expressing what they believe, what gets them through the night. That’s all and please try to ignore Brian Sky. He’s heartless. I hope you are surrounded by loving people who will just be there with you through this. When my brothers died I got great comfort from a site called Grief Speaks… Read more »
Richard Schiffer
Guest
Richard Schiffer

We lost our son, I now truly believe that God goes through the pain with you, holding you in his arms

Katie
Guest
Katie
I lost my father and best friend the last day of April, then lost my SECOND niece only 4 months later. Both nieces were sudden. My Dad battled pancreatic cancer for two and a half years. It was the worst time of my life. These happened in June, 2005 and then again in 2014! I still am ignored and have no one to talk to other than my sister who lost both of her daughters. It will be 2 years on the 12th of this month.t What do I do? I drive 80 miles each way to see my sister… Read more »
Aryhian
Guest
Aryhian

Hi Katie
I lost 4 people including my mother last year. Luckily I have good friends I can talk to. I feel for you and your husbands reaction is very hard. There are psychological stages that everybody must go though to in order to process grief and come out the other side see http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ I don’t know who you can reach out to to help you go through these stages The Samaritans, a Counsellor or just a new group of friends. I hope you find some support and don’t have to drive 160 miles to be listened to.

Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean

Aryhian, what a devastating loss. I’m glad you have support and admire that you reached out to help others who are also grieving. Hugs.

Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean

How awful for you. A grief group could help. Maybe a talk with a Hospice worker. It sounds like your husband doesn’t know how to comfort you so he is trying to make you stop grieving. Just my take on it. I could be completely wrong. Facebook has a site called Grief Speaks Out where people are encouraged to share whatever feelings they have and others are asked to respect their feeling and not try to fix. I found it comforting. I hope you might too.

Anne Dyer Walker
Guest
Anne Dyer Walker
on august first, i lost my hiking partner of eight years. he chose that day, his 54th birthday, to climb mount nittany and blow his head off. his son called me at 10:30 that morning, and told me what had happened. i understood the reasoning. he didn’t suffer with depression. he had no illness or financial issues. his motives involved a fear of aging, numerology, and various conspiracy theories that ruled his life. i understand, but i won’t ever accept. and the grief will never leave. i have to learn to live around it. no. we had no romantic ties.… Read more »
Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean

Hello, Anne. Such a dreadful loss. I ache for you. Try not to make any major decisions during the first year. Losing a friend to suicide is disorienting. I have experienced it. That was over 40 years ago and I still think of my friend but with less grief. Time, for me doesn’t remove grief but it does soften it. Love & gentle thoughts.

Anne Dyer Walker
Guest
Anne Dyer Walker
thank you. i did climb up there and burned some sage. and i found some extra work at least until winter. then i’ll look for something else. one of the most disturbing things i’ve found is how so many people want to claim a part in this. one woman claims she found his body. wrong. the police found the body. another claims she was his girlfriend. wrong. he had at least three women he slept with regularly (not me!). someone else claimed he jogged regularly. wrong. he thought running was stupid. part of me just wants to tell everyone to… Read more »
Brian Sky
Guest
Brian Sky

Terrible article. I stopped at dont say everything happens for a reason. It in fact does. We all go thru hardship. Two choices get bitter or get better. Theres a big difference between sympathy (negative) and empathy (positive). The avove mentioned comment is empathetic excuse me but if i say i know how you feel, i do. Speak for yourself poster. Limited, incorrect articles on coscious sites really urk me. If your not 100 dont put up the info. Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one. Seek truth only or be ensalved to the merrygoround of nonsense

Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean

I do wish you had stopped altogether Oh great enlightened one. Shut up.

Beverly Marcoux Johnston
Guest
Beverly Marcoux Johnston
I do believe MS McLean that you have your own way to deal with pain and suffering. Brian Sky does not once try to “manipulate people to” believe that he is Buddah or Ghandi, God himself or “The Enlightened One”. It is a personal discomfort or fear that you have with Brian!” He, as you are, simply is enlighted with his own truth. You are angry for some reason, finding it necessary to call him names and degrade him. Helping someone is not about being the “one and only” best helper. It is about showing compassion and love to the… Read more »
Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean

I apologise to Brian and to you Beverley for getting you up on your high horse and compounding the situation. Also to anyone who is grieving who was disturbed in any way by the discussion. This was about comforting you.

Rand B. Lee
Guest

Mr Sky, it sounds as though you have some solid experience of spiritual/emotional balance. But you should consider that if you wish to offer to others the benefit of your experience, you would assist more people if you learned how to build intellectual and emotional bridges to your audience. This will make your readers more likely to want to hear what you have to say.

Lyla McLean
Guest
Lyla McLean

Brian Sky this is not about knowitall you. Go away and don’t add uneededapin by kicking someone who is grieving a devastating loss. Try to grow a heart. You’re a monster.

Edwina Shaw
Guest
Edwina Shaw

lovely xx

Melita Panter
Guest
Melita Panter
I went to see a friend after the loss of her child I listened etc she went on to tell me she was going to set up a charity I suggested putting her in touch with another friend who had also lost a child but through different circumstances and had also set up a charity. she asked for details of my other friends loss ( it was 17 prior and I didn’t know her then ) she asked how she copes I said she just gets on with it a day at a time and shrugged my shoulders. A few… Read more »
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