The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut – the school shooting which took the lives of 20 children and 7 adults – all too painfully raises the question: What do you say in times of sorrow to those who grieve?
There is no easy answer.
Because it is so difficult to know what to say, we sometimes avoid saying anything at all. Unfortunately, our silence may only add to the grieving person’s sense of isolation. Or, worse, in an effort to lessen the person’s pain, we may say something thoughtless and insensitive, and compound their pain.
Here are my suggestions.
Do NOT say anything like, “I know what you’re going through.” You don’t know (you can’t know) what other people are feeling or thinking, even if you yourself have been through something similar.
Do NOT resort to platitudes, pious or otherwise. Saying “He’s in a better place now” or “There must be a reason for this” or “God has a plan for everything” may not reflect the beliefs of those who are grieving, and may offend the people you most want to console.
Do NOT try to take away or lessen people’s grief. Bereavement is a natural response to and a way of honoring loss. Denying or downplaying people’s need to grieve does them a dishonor.
DO express your sympathy. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is often sufficient.
DO show your affection. Gestures – a touch, a hand on the shoulder, a hug – are often the most effective.
DO listen. People in grief need to talk about what they have lost, but they often sense other people’s discomfort so they retreat into silence. Allowing them to talk and to tell stories and to reminisce — if and when and how they choose to do so — is a great kindness.
DO recognize people’s continuing grief. Some loses are so great that people never fully “get over” them. And there are times (holidays, anniversaries, special occasions) when memories and the attendant sorrow resurface. So express your sympathy again, show your affection again, and listen again.
Photo courtesy of Rosemary.