How to Listen to Someone Who’s Grieving

We had just gone to bed when the phone rang. The call was from a member of the ambulance team. She called to tell us our daughter had been injured in a car crash. “It’s really bad,” she concluded. I can still hear her words in my mind and, painful as they were, they helped me prepare for what was to come.

After more than 20 hours of surgery, the lead surgeon told us our daughter was brain-dead. Traumatizing as the news was, discontinuing life support and signing documents for organ donation were just as traumatizing. My husband and I were frozen in shock.

Our shock increased when, two days later, my father-in-law died. Word of the deaths spread quickly. Flowers began to arrive and so did friends. Two special friends came by to offer comfort and listen to my story. Today, I think of their listening as a special gift.

What are the causes of traumatic loss? According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the causes include disease, accidents, suicide, homicide, war and terrorism. “Sometimes grief becomes complicated, and bereaved survivors remain shaken and acutely distressed for months or years after the loss,” the society explains.

In 2007, I lost my daughter, father-in-law, brother, and former son-in-law. These tips come from life experience and will help you be an active listener.

1. Keep eye contact. Focus all of your attention on the mourner. According to “Listening Effectively,” an article on the Wright State University website, effective listeners show the speaker that they’ve been heard and understood. Eye contact can tell you when and if it is appropriate to give the person a hug or hand pat.

2. Don’t interrupt. If you’re a verbal person like me, ideas pop into your head and you want to share them. Interrupting doesn’t help the bereaved.

3. Focus your mind. As you listen to this raw, personal, painful story your thoughts may stray. Bring them back to the moment and focus on what you are hearing. What is the main message?

4. Withhold advice. This isn’t the time to tell your sob stories or offer advice. Remember, the person you are listening to is in shock. That’s enough to handle.

5. Ask gentle questions. In his book, “Working with Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman describes listening as an art. He thinks an active listener goes out of his or her way to hear the message. “Listening well and deeply means going beyond what is being said by asking questions, restating in one’s own words what you hear to be sure you understand.”

6. Provide feedback. Nod your head to show you understand and sympathize. If you think it is appropriate, offer comforting words such as “How awful” and “I’m so sorry.”

7. Track the time. One of my friends, dear as she was and continues to be, stayed for more than an hour. Though I appreciated her visit, I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to go to bed. Though your visit is short your gift of listening will be received.

Copyright 2011 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson

More Articles Written by Harriet

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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  • Shirley Wiles-Dickinson says:

    Oh Harriet, what a good article! Listening seems to be a lost art. I too, was blessed with one good listener after my sister was brutally murdered in September of 2009. My friend, my sister-in-law, Ann was my good listener. She was there it seems everytime I needed her. She put a note on my fridge that simply said 24/7. She was willing to listen to me anytime I needed to talk. She looked at me, she kept eye contact and she didn’t interrupt me. She didn’t try to ‘fix’ me. She somehow knew she just needed to listen. She helped me through some really dark times and I will be forever grateful to her.

  • Harriet Hodgson says:

    Dear Shirley,
    I’m so sorry for your loss and your memory of this brutal loss. Thank you for your positive comment. I, too, think active listening has become a lost art, especially in our noisy world. I am grateful to my friends for their gift of listening.

  • Dave Roberts says:

    Hi Harriet.
    Hi Harriet
    This is a great article with some wonderful tips for companioning bereaved individuals on their journeys. It is so important to learn how to bear witness to others pain so that their stories are heard and so that they can eventually discover meaning and joy again in forever changed worlds.

  • Jean Ann Williams says:

    Harriet,

    Such wisdom on good listening skills.

    Thank you

  • Harriet Hodgson says:

    Thanks Jean Ann. Listening takes energy and patience and I’m working on both.
    Harriet

  • Kari says:

    Your article is very insightful – thank you. I have been experiencing a lot of deaths lately – I wrote an article on this just today – how to participate in other people’s grief

    http://ourdailyescape.com/2011/03/01/daily-dose/participating-in-grief/

    So many times people don’t understand how important they can be during hard times.

  • Harriet Hodgson says:

    Hi Kari,
    Thanks for your comment. A church friend died last week and I reaized, again, how much listening can help the bereaved.
    Harriet