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What NOT To Say To People Who Are Grieving

A conversation with psychotherapist, Sadaf Jamal. Watch the video here

Dr. Safiyyah Ally: Finding the right words to tell someone who is grieving can be difficult. We don't want to cause people suffering who are already suffering, but it sometimes seems impossible not to do that. Then, we end up disappointing people, making them angry, or making them upset. How do we avoid that? Everyone is different, and some people will appreciate certain things said to them and other people might not, right?

Sadaf Jamal: Right. What I do in my work is that I meet people where they are at. Every person is different: their personalities are different, their preferences are different, and their past life experiences are different, so people respond to grief differently. There is no one way of grieving. If you know the person, that works to your advantage. However, sometimes when people are grieving, you find out different sides of them that you hadn't known before. That's why you have to meet them where they are at. If they are in the mood to talk then you talk. If they're not, then don't poke around and ask too many questions.

The best thing that you can do to a person who is grieving is just to listen. You don't have to talk all the time. You can hold silence.

That can be hard to do because silence does not come naturally to people. People may wonder, “Should I just stare at the person while they speak?”. No, during our conversations, communication is 95% non-verbal. So, you can communicate with them non-verbally. For instance, do something that would help them. You can support a grieving person by making food for them, asking them if they would like their home to be cleaned, hugging them, or just being there for them. The best thing you can do is listen, but there are many ways of listening that I would like to explore with you.

Dr. Safiyyah: Yes, please talk about how you can listen. It's very tough to simply stay silent when you’re in that situation. We aren’t used to long silences. Especially in a situation like grief, which we're already uncomfortable with. We try to fill the silence with something, however, it could end up being inappropriate for the circumstance.

Sadaf: It also might come out as awkward, where you realize you shouldn't have asked that question. The best thing is to not say much or talk much. When I was receiving my psychotherapy training, we were taught how to be great listeners. Before we were taught how to be great listeners, we were taught the signs of a bad listener. One of the ways you can be a bad listener is if you are a “one upper”. For instance, if the speaker is saying something and you say, "But let me tell you what I went through." You’re one-upping them and you’re dismissing their experiences. You're not acknowledging where they are at.

Dr. Safiyyah: Some people do that. Sometimes not by talking about their own experience, but they will say something like, "Somebody else went through a really bad situation, so at least you didn't have to go through that." They're trying to minimize the pain and although they're not talking about themselves, they're talking about someone else. Yet, I think the grieving person doesn't want to hear about other people. They are not concerned.

Sadaf: It's their moment because it's their grief. Yes, there are poverty, hunger, and many other issues around the world, however, that's not the appropriate time to bring it up. Any time you feel that you have to begin your sentence with “at least”, you should stop there. Don’t finish that sentence.

Dr. Safiyyah: For instance, “At least you have other children. At least you can get married again”.

Sadaf: Exactly. These are very ghosting sentences that are not healthy for people who are grieving to hear. In short, one-upping them or using “at least” are the signs of a bad listener.

Another sign of a bad listener is the use of a boomerang question. People ask questions, but solely to them for themselves. An example of it is, “How was your weekend? Because mine was…" and they start talking about their weekend.

Make sure to avoid boomerang questions like that because that is a sign of a bad listener. Another sign of a bad listener is the “mechanic”. They're looking for problems and solutions, similar to how a mechanic looks for faults in the car and says, "Here's what you need to do."

Dr. Safiyyah: Can you give an example of how someone would be a mechanic or a fixer?

Sadaf: It depends on your culture. In my culture, if a person is going through cancer, many people will offer all sorts of herbal remedies. This is called Totka. They do this even though they know that this person is in stage four and nothing is going to help.

Dr. Safiyyah: The person probably didn't ask for these remedies or doesn’t want them either.

Sadaf: Right. A grieving person sometimes simply needs you to be there and not say anything. Sometimes you have to sit with people in darkness and you don't always have to rescue them. If you're not a trained individual, don't rescue them. Just be there for them. It's also our discomfort while sitting with their darkness that makes it awkward for us to visit a grieving person. Don't be the “mechanic”, don't ask boomerang questions, and don't one-up them. Some people have also done their research and learned that to be a good listener, you have to ask a lot of questions. This is called the “interrogator”. Sometimes people don't know how to ask questions, so what they do is marinate the person with questions. The griever then becomes overwhelmed by all of the questions. When you ask question after question, it feels like an interrogation. And I'm just gonna share one more piece and then I'll give you a resource and you can do your research on your own, how to be a bad listener? The last type of bad listener is the “inspector”. This is when you ask closed-ended questions, similar to how a detective might ask a suspect to lure him into a confession. For instance, starting a question with, “Wasn't it true that…". Try not to ask questions like that. If you don't know what to say or do just hold their hands or walk alongside them in their journey.

Dr. Safiyyah: Saying things like “I'm sorry” or “I love you” are also things you can say at any time and they would come up perfectly.

Sadaf: Right, and there are certain things actually that you can say, for instance, "I am so sorry for your loss." It's a very acceptable form of something to say to a grieving person. Also, you can say, "Here's my number. I am waiting for your call and I'm here to listen" instead of saying, "Call me whenever you want" or "I'll be there to take your call". These are all very shallow statements and they don't mean anything to a grieving person.

Dr. Safiyyah: What about saying something like, "I wish I could take away your pain"?

Sadaf: That's something that you know that you can't do. It's their pain and they have to embrace it and accept their new reality. However, you can say, “I'm here as you go through this pain”. Saying that the person who the grieving person lost is in a better place is also a very dangerous statement, along with saying that “it was part of God’s plan”. What that does is that it can create suicidal ideation where a person may want to be with their loved one and want to be in that “better place” you mention. It might also create anger in the grieving person that they want their loved one to be beside them and that the physical world should be the “better place”.

Dr. Safiyyah: It's not necessarily that those things are inaccurate, it's just the wrong timing to be saying that.

Sadaf: Yes, they are inappropriate. Instead of saying a lot of things, try to limit what you say and try to increase what you do. Give them some respite, make meals for them, and simply be there for them, which is what most people want anyway.

Dr. Safiyyah: Sometimes people say, "You have to be strong. You have to be strong for your child or your wife”, for instance. Do you think that is a good thing to say?

Sadaf: I would not say that as a grief therapist and I would never say that to my clients because that dismisses their experience and it doesn't make room for their feelings. It denies the reality of grief for them and is similar to saying that they are going through this pain, but they shouldn’t deal with it and simply move on.

There is no such thing as moving on from grief, however, we move forward.

We don't simply resolve and close. There's no resolution and closure with grief, however, there should be reconciliation and integration into life. You will learn to live with grief and not just avoid and dodge it.

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