What to Say (and What Not to Say) to a Loved One Who's Grieving
This article appeared originally on Next Avenue.
Bad things happen. As we grow up, we become better acquainted with loss and sickness and grief. And we all find ourselves in the position of wanting to support friends and family who are going through terrible experiences. But what to say? How do we reach out in sensitive, appropriate ways?
Too often, we default to doing nothing, to shying away out of fear that we will embarrass ourselves or, worse, increase the suffering person’s pain by choosing the wrong words. Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell, both cancer survivors, have our backs. In their wonderful book, "There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love," they offer straightforward, practical and encouraging advice on helping family and friends going though hard times.
Crowe, who has a Ph.D. in social welfare from the University of California, Berkeley, teaches social work and founded Help Each Other Out, a group that offers workshops and online education to promote empathy. McDowell created the popular Empathy Cards, a line of warm, often funny cards that speak honestly to painful circumstances, like serious illness. Publishers contacted her about doing a book after news about the cards went viral in 2015.
McDowell shared her advice for talking to the ones you love about emotionally difficult situations.
Your book grew out of the Empathy Cards. How did those get started?
Emily McDowell: The idea came from the observation when I was sick and then in subsequent years, having friends who have been sick … that nobody knows what to say. What ends up happening is that the people who are grieving or sick end up feeling really lonely and really alienated.
The person going through this (thinks): "Why don’t you just say, 'I don’t know what to say?' Just say something." On the other hand, the people (witnessing the suffering) feel that pressure to say the right thing and the words never come. So a lot of people never say anything.
And the cards on the market are not super helpful in terms of starting a conversation. They’re either just "with sympathy" or they have a poem that’s religious, which doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. Or it’s a blank thing with flowers and then the onus is still on you to say something.
So I really wanted to make something that started a conversation.
And when you’re sick, there are a lot of things that commonly happen to you, things that people say that are kind of ridiculous. You know they’re just trying to help and then you feel bad for being irritated. Like when somebody says, "Everything happens for a reason," and you want to hit them. You feel guilty about it, because you feel like, "Oh, I know they’re just trying to help." It’s a very complicated set of emotions.
The feedback I’ve gotten from a lot of people is: "Thank you for making these, because I thought I was the only person who felt this way. It validates my feelings and my reality, and it makes me feel like I’m not a total jerk for feeling irritated with the people who try to get me to listen to their cure from the Internet."
So I felt like there was just a really big opportunity to assist in communication in these kinds of situations where we have a such a hard time communicating.
And the book is an extension of that?
EM: It is. But I thought based on the reaction that we were getting from people (to the Empathy Cards) that the book we really needed was a book that went deeper into what do you say and do and how do you show up for someone who’s going through something terrible. That is the next step after you give someone a card: Then what do you do?
I didn’t feel qualified to write that book on my own.
At the same time that this is all happening, a friend introduced me to Kelsey Crowe, my co-author. She had really done a ton of research in this space. And she and I had a very similar vision from the get-go of what we should do.
You talk a lot in the book about just listening. Why is listening so important
EM: Because when we are going through something terrible, we actually don’t need anyone to try to fix it or talk us out of our pain—which sort of runs contrary to everything that we’re taught about how to solve a problem. What we actually need is someone to just be a witness to it and be present. Listening is just the best way to do that. We all tend to make the act of showing up harder than it needs to be because we feel we have to be an emotional ninja. We think, "I need to be able to talk about death, I need to be able to know what to say, I need to be a psychologist." And none of that is true.
You just have to listen and be there. Let the other person talk and let them feel heard without judging them or trying to talk them out of what’s going on or trying to fix it.
You let them take the lead?
EM: Right. They may not want to talk about being sick or in grief or whatever they’re going through. They may just want to talk about the other elements of their life that are still going on. Your job is just to show up and be present and listen and be with them through whatever it is they want to talk about. If they want to just watch TV and talk about "Real Housewives," cool. And if they want to talk about other stuff, then, also cool.
In the book, we get into a lot of different sort of conversation prompts, little tips and tricks of things to say. Just little things when you are in the conversation and you want to encourage them to keep talking.
In the last chapter, you also offer suggestions of what not to say—things like, "Have you tried ____?" and "I wouldn’t worry" and "You’re a saint!"
EM: We do. It’s things that we all say. Because in other circumstances, when you’re solving a different kind of problem, those are all skills that we use and that are appropriate.
So it makes sense that everybody thinks: "This is how it’s supposed to go. This is what’s supportive." I think all of the tendencies in that last chapter are super common human impulses.
What do you most want people to take away from your book?
EM: That the most important thing that we can do for each other as humans is just to be present for each other’s suffering and to not run away when things get hard.
My hope for this book is that it teaches people that we all have that capacity in us, and that it’s easier than we think. I hope that people come away from this book feeling really confident in their ability to do that.