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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 Responses to How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss

  1. 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.

    • 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, honestly they have no idea what it feels like and feel the need to say something. By bringing God into it they may believe they are offering the best support. I wish you much love during your grief journey. Remember to reach out when the support (phone calls and visits) stops. It will help so much in your healing.

      • 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 an interpretation of death that was created by other people that came before you? Do they have proof? No. So now you are believing someobe elses idea regarding death that brinfs you pain amd suffering. Sounds really fun. Not. So heres an example. Remember, you have the power to make sense of things and your heart and emotional guidance system will always point you the right way. The feel good way. If you think. Example: i say there is no death and we are infinite beings created by creators sure but only our flesh amd our soul is eternal and we are all one and when you die it is the farthest thing from the end that you have no idea. And that the reason for your confusion is so that you can have a human experience here on earth because you can only have these experiences earth provides for your souls growth and evolution here in the 3rd dimension. So now back up. Take your opinion out of the equation so u dont i terfere with your ability to think properly and keep your mark aimed squarely at the truth or olif not possible at given time then the best feeling thought. Neither one of the death scenarios can be proven to you at this time amd they were both created by other ppl not yourself. Now take control oof your life and yiur thoughts. Realize that no other human is more capable than you. You are a soverign veing onto yourself and you are fully capable of rational thinking. So your death idea(and majority of people which why that is well lwave for another time) is negative. My death idea is positive. Now you could create a third idea from your imagination if u want but personally i prefer truth if and when possible. My idea is fact btw. And the bible religiob etc will try to tell u the same thing. The difference? Ill sit down with any religious figure anytime that is willing and able to rationally think and problem solve with the desire to seek the truth without opinion or bias screwing up the process and guaranteed he will walk away with my idea because it doesnt have any holes, everything fits together, its based in love not fear, feels good not bad, but most importantly makes sense. The. Religions are all flawed with varied interpretarions of the actuality of things so its the same with a liar. Liars cannot stand against truth forever because when you say something is true when in fact you know technically you are just assuming or faith or whatever other nonsensical excuse ppl use to avoid critical thought then it such ideas cannot flow and will not withstand the pressure of true inquiry. Take the same true inquiry to me and you will not be able to find holes or fear or that it doesnt all fit together or make sense. Everything is perfect with it because when you are dealing with the truth there is nothing more powerful and there is nothing that can discredit the truth besides opinion and ignorance which if that is your intention then yiu shouldnt be seeking knowledge in the first place if one would just “run rampant and do whateve thehy want”. You know what i mean? So in short, yiu have 2 ideas, both made up as far as your knowledge goes (neither is oroven to you) So now please good sire do me a favor and tell me (good reason that makes sense only) why you would choose the negative idea. The ine you currently hold. Even if i didnt provide the acrual truth for yiu here today which you are not likely ro incorporate anyway due to ywars of programming and not thinking for yourself just imagine for a sec that you were a 3rd party observer with no experience and no bias. With no pramming, just 1 goal and one focus. To fairly judge. Now which one would you choose. Obviously not the negative one, unless your a masochist. And from your aversion to pain im gonna take a shot in the dark and say you fo not like the negative. So do yourself the biggest favor youve ever done and re read. Be fair 3rd parter observer, and see how everything fits beautifully. So that when i tell you have alk the power inside you and its not any of our faukts we forget when we are born so that we can have am honest experience.. But that all you need to do is realize how powerful amd eternal and magificent you truly are. Most importantly let know fellow man anywhere at anytime whether its me your wife or the pope tell you what to think and how to think. YOU ARE FULLY CAPABLE OF DOING THIS YOURSELF. If you think correctly and objectively without opinion or bias you can easily know for yourself what is right vs wrong at any given time there is no being on this planet that has the right to tell you what and how to think or what to beleive. This is mans greatest mistake. Beleive in yourself again. As you did when you were a small child. Before How long each of us stays incircumstanful state is up to us, wheter we realize it or not. Side note on your comment about he Regardless of circumstance. You dont need anyones approval or reassurance for anything, ever. Do you believ someone else can live your life and think your thoughts better than you can? Are you caught in the negative thinking that creates a reality for you where your happiness is not based within yourself but by the aporoval of others? For there is no surer and faster way to dissapointed, confusion pain suffering and regret. True Happiness can only be found from within. Same with love etc. These truths are not up for debate. Its common sense that somehow eludes ppl. So if happiness is within yourself then you stop needi g approval from others to sustain yiur positivity now you are free from that and are free to think your own thougts and live your own life without apology. Never apologize for having high standards. People who really want to be in your life will rise up to meet them. Less you allow them to drag you back down. All ppl have to do is think and be sure of tjemselves in the ways and examples presented for you here today, the lunar eclipse in pices, and you will (when done honestly and legitimately based in love) will find answers for yourself like this and so much more. At the very least you will be free again. Free to experience and free to live. Free to think. If somebody doesnt want that kind of live then they are mentally handicapped in some way or just resistant and programmed to the point of such extreme retardation and control that they are toxic to be aroubd and will only bring you down. They refuse or do not beleive they can think. They are sheep. Let them sleep. Wake up people! As always feel free to msg me i can answer and back up with common sense anything i said or that you want to know whether this topic or others. If there is something i dont know which depending on topic at hand then ill say i dont know and we can brainstorm together or find the answer. Never say yiu know something if your not 100. Talk about a recipe for dissapointment sheesh. When it comes to topics like these tho i have already done everyrhing necessary to ensure accuracy, consistency, good feeling, love, flow, all fits, no holes. And when you have all of those things on your side all the time? That is how you prove the intangible. The improvable. Im fact when something as suchnis so pure no matter what is done or said nithing can justly touch it. That my friend, is truth. Not yournreligions and bibles that habe zero standards and fall.apart so hard at every corner with little actual good stuff that is true you have so.much bs yiu cant tell truth from fiction your so confused and lied to and then on top of that your ttld it somehow doesnt matter to make sense or have legitimate answers and to comoensate for all this nonsense with faith. Ya… Right… Come on. Im may be human but im not an idiot. If you cant logically make sense then stfu and dont allow people to walk through your mind with their dirty feet -Ghandi. One day i will figure out the grand dillema i currently face on how to most effectively ans efficiencantly elevate humanties consciousness and break them free of the intense lrogramming that is limiting their frequency, their happiness and their entire lives. People you like to think your so smart and stubborn and free and etc etc. Ill end on this.. The best way to control and enslave a society is to do things in such a way that the slaves have no idea they are slaves and believe they are free to choose when in fact there is no concept further from the actual truth of the matter – This way, they will be the most productive and produce the biggest bounty – slaves that know they are slaves proved not to be good producers in the past and so welcome to the present day. The modern slave. How glorious of an achievement. How glorious, indeed. Enter now, the elite. The 1%. So much more answers and knowledge but u get the idea now i hope. And if yiu dont? U have nobody to blame for your destined future of misery or unhappiness or confusion than yourself. Choose wisely. Facebook Brian Sky Pelc

          • 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, society, nation, world, ourselves or our relationships and interactions with others. If given the choice you would seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is the guiding force behind all behind all human choices. The problem then lies in ignorance and the lack of drive to critically think, which is the highest valued thinking. Dont you value yourself and others? I recommend critical thinking on each and every subject. Youll be amazed at what you learn when you use your brain. As alwayd i will always help a soul seeking to evolve and even speak to those who do not seek to evolve, you deserve the right to choose and to know there is greater things within you and all the answers you seek than you could ever imagine. Choose wisely.

          • 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?

    • 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 other solutio than the solution? The comment didnt make you feel bad. You already felt bad, irregardless of any comment. You simply took your pain and prohected it on an innocent being that in fact was giving you sound information wbile trying to protect their emotional well being, as we all deserve and are capable of being constantly emotionally healthy. And you are saying that is wrong? I beleive you are confused. Correct me if im confused but i never speak on such things without THINKING so Im virtually never wrong. Why don’t you think also? If I can do it so can you. There is a reason for evrrything. And there is one truth to each fact. Seek that truth. Not my truth. Not your truth. The truth. And settle for nothing less. Otherwise you are doomed to live a life of confusion, and from what i read pain. Do i experience loss pain or hard times? Sure. Is it painful? Sure. Do i quickly recover? Mkstly. “You dont drown by falling in water. You only drown if you stay there.” Of course each is entitles to their own experience but without the logic and knowledge coupled with your emotion there is but only one possible outcome. And personally, I wasbt born to feel negative. Were you? Take responsibility for your life and your thoughts and ditch the misery loves company lifesttle unless you like to suffer? Humans are such a trip. As you experience and play with these ideas you will grow and become stronger amd better with and at it. I am always willing and available to help in any way a can a soul that is seeking to evolve. Feel free to lmk. All the best. Love & Light

      • 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

    • 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 Out. They would not allow a troll like Brian Sky to comment and add to your pain. I wish you love & comfort.

  2. 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 every other week and my husband tells me I’m too sensitive and crying is only for weak people. I need some guidance/advice. I’m literally dying inside with absolutely no one to talk to about how I feel

    • 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.

      • 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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. but he and i knew, cherished and accepted each other, despite our 180 degree differences. so now i walk around this hole.
    i may end up taking a third job to fill the hours i always spent hiking. or i may end up leaving this beautiful area. no one can say anything to make it right. but people have said things to make it worse.

    • 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.

      • 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 shut up. i do try to ignore this stuff, but people go out of their way to tell me about it.

  4. 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

      • 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 suffering one, whom is trying to overcome pain and hurt and the fear of being Isolated. You are trying to bring all the readers down to your level of insecurity. Brian is sharing his truth for the good of the listener, to help them grow and conquer their pain, however, what purpose could you possibly have for trying to shut him out and cut him down, other than trying to fullfill a need you have for being Superior. Which ironically is what you are accusing him of doing. Write from your heart not your ego, please.

        • 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 days later she posted on her new charities page about our conversation although she didn’t name me she took what I said and twisted it after 600 plus comments slamming me I removed myself from the group.i even ended up moving my kids school in the end. Absolutely horrendous.i have even hidden round corners from her it really stopped me from helping others for fear of repocussion

  7. I disagree that it is better to say the wrong thing than to say nothing. When I was 24, my beautiful, loving, awesome mom died. She was 50. Some people said some pretty “wrong” things back then and I still remember them now 28 years later. It did teach me to be more thoughtful about what I say to people who are grieving and mostly I don’t say anything I just give them a hug. So now that friends and family around my age (53) are starting to lose their parents will still say “wrong” things to me like “now I know how you felt back then”. Uh hmm…..let’s see, your mom got to meet your husband, be at your wedding, meet her grandkids, help you through all those milestones. I got none of that. I didn’t get to see my mom enjoy any of her grandkids because she died 3 months before her first grandbaby (my nephew) was born. I have NEVER said the words “I know how you feel” to anyone about anything let alone about their grief over the loss of a loved one.

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