And yet, most people probably don’t know what to say, so they just say whatever seems right at the moment. Often what we think is right, or what we have been taught to say, isn’t always helpful.
Consider the following example from Russell Friedman, Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute:
If someone staggered towards you with an arrow sticking out of their chest, and blood dripping from the wound, you would probably recognize that the person might be in massive physical pain. It is unlikely that you would say “Don’t feel bad, at least it wasn’t a poison arrow,” and just keep walking past them. More likely, you would say “My gosh, you must be in terrible pain, I’ll call an ambulance.”
Yet when someone’s heart has been broken by a major loss, most people say “Don’t feel bad, you should feel grateful you had them so long.” While it may be intellectually accurate that you have a great deal of gratitude in that relationship, that is usually not the foremost emotional response to the death of a loved one. Perhaps it would be helpful to imagine that there is an emotional arrow sticking out of their chest. It will remind you to respond more helpfully.
The emotional pain can be caused by a death, divorce, illness, career change, or any of a number of different types of losses. Some other examples of things not to say are, “At least you are young, you can have another child (or spouse, or business)” or “It could have been worse.” Ouch. We don’t want to add to the pain of someone who is already struggling.
Examples of more helpful things to say are:
- What happened?
- Could you tell me about it?
- I can’t imagine how painful this is for you.
- I don’t know what to say.
- What is this like for you?
- What was your relationship like?
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss.
Grieving people are usually preoccupied with thoughts that take up so much energy that they seem as if their brain is on another planet. It’s like they have “emotional jetlag.” This is normal! It is important to give the griever time and understanding; their wound is just as serious as an arrow through the heart, even though we can’t see it.
Read the rest of the article Emotional Jetlag in Broken Hearts on Psychology Today, by Russell Friedman