Life happens, and we are not in control. I learned this lesson yet again last month when I tripped over some fencing and fell hard onto concrete. The impact broke a crucial bone in my hip, and a few weeks later I had a total right hip replacement. This was not in my plans.
As the news got out, I wished I could have trained all the people who responded to me in hopes of offering support. I heard countless stories about other people’s joint replacements – hips, knees, shoulders. I rapidly grew weary of hearing how grateful I should be because “hips are easier than knees.” I was repeatedly reassured about how strong I am. None of this well-meaning input was helpful. The comforters’ focus was on their desire to cheer me up or to encourage me or to say the “right things”, rather than focusing on me and just listening.
Here are a few general principles that teach you how offer genuine support for a client, friend or family member dealing with a difficult situation.
1. Keep the focus on the grieving person: Too many supposedly helpful phrases reflect what you feel rather than what the grieving person feels. One example: “I’m so sorry”. This is intended to let someone know you care about their loss, yet there are three problems with it. Unconsciously, then, when a grieving person hears those words there can be an instinct to say, “It’s OK. It wasn’t your fault.” In other words, they feel they need to comfort you instead of the other way around. It stops the conversation because there is no easy way to reply. They may respond with “Thank you” but that doesn't quite fit when you think about it. And then what? It leaves you no logical conversational path. You risk a more serious negative reaction. Recently a widow told me she was so tired of hearing it that if one more person said he was sorry, she was going to snap back with “Not half as sorry as I am!”
2. Ask open ended questions: Whenever someone goes through a difficult time in life, ask open-ended questions that invite them to tell their story. What is this like for you? What kinds of things are you most concerned about? What do you wish people would stop telling you? Would it be most helpful if I did (x), (y), or something else?
3. Don’t minimize or compare the loss. Avoid saying anything that starts with “At least…” or that highlights only the positive side. For example, “At least you still have your children” or “At least he’s no longer suffering” or "At least you're young and you can marry again." When you point out what someone hasn't lost or concentrate on only positives, you tell your client that you don't understand at all. He or she feels you are telling them what they should feel - grateful – rather than acknowledging what they do feel – intensely mixed emotions.
Don’t worry nearly so much about saying the “right thing”, but instead worry about allowing your clients to say what they need to say. These little things make such a difference, and as my experience illustrates, the same principles of grief support apply regardless of the situation, the transition, or the break in attachment, beliefs, self-image, role, and more.