When someone dies, we often hear ourselves promising to visit or call a person in mourning in the days or weeks following the death and funeral. Sometimes our own promise fosters in us feelings of panic. What do we say? What do we do?
Relax. I’ll tell you a secret. There is an art to bringing comfort to those who are in mourning. That art lies in our ability to listen attentively and compassionately to what they want to say. In other words, when in doubt about what to say, switch from talking to listening. Chances are good that a person who lost a loved one recently needs the gift of unconditional listening more than anything else.
You can show your willingness to listen, and your understanding that working through grief takes months – years, actually – by asking short questions that encourage the bereaved to share their grief in conversation with you.
Here are three open-ended statements that do not pass judgment or make assumptions. Making these statements or asking similar questions show you care, and that you’re willing to listen.
What did you love most about him?
This statement turns the focus away from the death and on to the life and the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved.
She seemed to cope well with her disease.
I love hedging words like seemed that straddle between making a statement and asking a question. They keep us from presuming to know more than we do. Saying someone coped with the disease is better than saying she fought hard to the end (even if you believe that to be true) because following caregivers’ instructions to the letter and maintaining a positive attitude are not guarantees for recovery. A disease is an illness, not a war. People who die because of a disease do not fail. They are not guilty of not trying hard enough to stay alive.
I believe he loved life to the very end.
This is a utilitarian statement that is useful in three distinctly different sets of circumstances. One, it is suitable for situations when death was precipitated by a dangerous or foolish act. Two, it works well when the person defied all medical understanding and lived far longer than expected. Finally, it is a very suitable alternative to other statements when the person who has died chose medical treatments that mostly served to prolong the dying process, to the dismay of the family.
Of course, these questions assume that the person you’re come to comfort wants to talk with you about the person who has died. That is not always the case, for reasons too numerous and varied to go into here. The art of comforting someone who is mourning also involves knowing when the grieving person wants to talk about almost anything else. If any of these above statements fail to open up the conversation, it’s safe to assume you should move on to other topics, at least for the time being.
Life Is Honest, Open and True: One of the best ways we can comfort those mourning the death of a loved one is to listen. Asking questions encourages them to tell us about their relationship, their memories and their loss.