The following are a few of the comments you may have received from genuinely caring people after the death of your loved one:

  • “At least they are no longer suffering.”
  • “You are strong, you’ll get through this.”
  • “The Lord had another plan for them.”
  • “You are young; you’ve got a lot of life to live.”
  • “It is good that you didn’t have children together.”
  • “It is good that you had children together.”
  • “You were lucky to have had so many years together.”
  • “It was such an ordeal, now you can move on.”
  • “I know how you feel. I…”
  • “You were lucky to have had such a happy marriage.”
  • “You have plenty of time, you will have more children.”
  • And if a pet has died, “You will get over this. The best thing you can do is get another dog.”

What’s wrong with people? Why are they so thoughtless?  While these sentiments are usually the norm, and I have personally experienced such comments, I think it is time to cut these well-meaning people some slack.

When we only have a hammer, we treat everything as if it were a nail.

There is something called the law of the instrument, nicknamed “Maslow’s hammer” after psychologist Abraham Maslow who said in 1966: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

The point is: when we are confronted by a person in physical or emotional pain, we tend to over-rely on the familiar tool of comfort and reassurance, because that is what we learned at our parent’s knee.

  • Think back to childhood. You took a tumble. What did you immediately do?  You searched for a trusted adult to comfort you hoping to hear, “There… there…it’s going to be all right. You are lucky it is only a scrape. Soon you will feel better. Yes, yes… it will hurt for a bit… but tomorrow will be a better day!”

What the griever and the consoler neither realize

The truth is no mother, father, child, man or woman who has just buried or cremated their loved one can be successfully comforted – and any attempt to offer comfort and reassurance will sound thoughtless no matter how thoughtfully delivered. 

The difference between comfort and support…

If you are reading this post to learn how to move from feeling helpless to helpful around a grieving friend or family member— the key is to stop comforting and start supporting them. And the best way to support a person experiencing fresh loss is to express your regret and then allow them to speak—if they are so inclined. If it is clear that they don’t wish to talk, don’t force them into a conversation. Just sit with them, or walk with them in silence.

This is more difficult than it sounds.

Generally we don’t know what to do with silence—other than try to fill it up with words. Don’t cave to the temptation. If the grieving person doesn’t wish to talk, give them their privacy.

If you are attending a funeral or memorial service and there is little time to
listen, consider touching the grieving person’s wrist or shoulder and simply express your regret: “I am sorry you are going through this.” If you know the individual well you might add: “I want you to know that I’m available in the coming months. I’ll call you later to check in.” Be sure to follow through by offering to run an errand or take them to lunch so you can truly be supportive.

Eleanor, in her recent blog post for What’s Your Grief, offers a great reminder for those of us who are going to a funeral or visiting a loved one who is grieving. Look into a mirror and say out loud “I am not a grief-comforter, I am a grief supporter.”  I would add one other reminder: “Grievers need to be heard not reassured.”

Eleanor’s blog post: Grief Support vs. Comfort: a pro-tip for the compassionate and caring

How do grievers react to being asked “How are you doing?”

Note: I highly recommend Marty Tousley’s Grief Healing blog and Grief Healing Discussion Groups. Marty joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix AZ as bereavement counselor in 1996 and wrote their online grief forums until October of 2013. Because of lack of funding she has taken on sole responsibility for the Grief Healing Discussion Groups. You won’t regret signing up for her posts. She provides excellent support and a wonderful archive of grief-related subjects to explore.

To read more about supporting a person who has lost a pet: Offering Support: What to Say (or Not) to a Grieving Animal Lover