This is the last in a 3-part series about how to talk about grief, and how to listen to others who are grieving.

The following is advice for those who are willing to try to listen to and support others who are grieving.

1. Be there for the person. One of my favorite quotations is, “life is mostly froth and bubbles, two things stand like stone, kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own1.” If you have ever undergone a personal crisis, you know that your friends’ and loved ones’ support and understanding can be a light in the darkness of your misery. If a friend of yours is grieving, you have the opportunity to provide this kind of invaluable support to him or her.

2. Listen and validate. Grievers want to feel heard. Validation means offering a simple and kind acknowledgement of what the griever has told you. For example, it is validating to say to the griever, I can tell how painful this is for you. People are sometimes nervous about offering validation or acknowledgment of another’s pain for fear that it will make the pain worse or more real. It won’t. The pain is already real, and the most comforting thing you can do is to help the griever feel less alone in the pain – and that’s what validation does. It tells the hurting person that (s)he has been seen by someone else. When you offer validation, you don’t need to make, fix, or solve anything. The only thing that would take the pain away is reversing the loss, and both you and the griever know that this is not possible. Until a griever feels heard, he or she may keep trying to tell you the same story. A simple, heartfelt acknowledgment of a griever’s pain will help the griever feel supported and understood.

3. Don’t minimize or talk in platitudes. There is a temptation to comfort the bereaved with platitudes like It’ll get better over time. You’re still young enough to have another child. It was God’s will, or even, I understand how you feel. Research suggests that consolers offer such platitudes out of anxiety, and that they actually backfire. As well-intentioned as these platitudes may be, they can be hurtful because they minimize and ignore the griever’s current pain and effectively shut the griever down from further expressions of negative emotion.

How can you avoid platitudes? First, learn how to recognize a platitude. Platitudes are cliches, so they come across as non-genuine. Platitudes are intended to offer comfort, but they offer comfort cheaply, without sufficiently acknowledging pain. Check in with yourself before you offer comfort to a bereaved person. Or does the comfort ring false if you really think about it? Does it have the effect of telling them that their pain is unnecessary or wrong? If the answer to these questions is yes, it’s  a platitude.

4. Respect your own needs. It can be very difficult to remain supportive to a person who is in great pain for a long time. Ask yourself honestly how much and what kind of support you are willing to give without becoming resentful or burned out, and then give that support. If you can define your boundaries and stick to them, you’re more likely to be a source of support in the long run without burning out. 

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Jenna Baddeley

Jenna Baddeley is working on a Ph.D. in clinical and social/personality psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the behavioral manifestations and social consequences of psychological pain. She has conducted and published research on why and how bereaved people tell stories of their losses, and on the social consequences of talking about loss or remaining silent about it. She has studied the usefulness of expressive writing for returning soldiers and their spouses. Currently she is studying how depressed individuals behave in their everyday lives, and especially how they talk with the people around them. She writes the blog “Embracing the Dark Side” for Psychology Today. She is also a therapist in training. To Listen to Jenna on Open to Hope Radio

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