“I don’t know what to say.”
Barbara Webster, EVP Americas
Let’s chalk this up as a topic that isn’t taught in school, so please don’t think you’re alone in not knowing what to say, or more importantly, what not to say to someone that is grieving. We learn to read, write, and perform mathematical calculations, but this topic falls outside of any standard school curriculum. Instead, most of us are forced to learn as we go, which can lead to the worst possible outcome – making the person we’re attempting to comfort feel even worse!
When we are faced with a grieving friend or loved one, we have two choices; say something or say nothing. We can all agree that saying nothing isn’t a great option. Avoiding the topic or worse, avoiding the friend or loved one until they “get over it”, can cause a level of hurt that may have long-term implications on your relationship with that individual. Saying something comes with its own set of risks. If we say it well, it will convey empathy, compassion, and caring. If we fail, we could make the situation worse, or even destroy our relationship with that individual.
Scary, right? Don’t worry, the fact that you’re reading this shows that you’re open to learning about empathy and how you can be a better source of comfort and support to those grieving.
Unfortunately, we’ve learned a lot about grief in the aviation industry from accidents of the past. Families of the victims have educated our industry about the many mistakes made, including things that had been said to them, not only by the airline representatives, but by their own friends and family members. I have spent nearly 30 years of my career learning from the people who selflessly tell their stories with the sole purpose of trying to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Part of their transcendence is in sharing their experiences. Their hope is that others grieving the loss of a loved one won’t have to endure the secondary assault of well-intentioned, but insensitive, comments by the people around them.
“At least he didn’t suffer.”
“At least she died doing something that she loved.”
“At least you’ll have the insurance money.” (Yes, someone actually said that to the mother who lost her daughter in a plane crash.)
There are no silver linings in these situations, so don’t try to create any with words.
“It was his time.”
“It was God’s will”
“She’s in a better place.”
It’s never a good idea to philosophize about death, or attempt to make the situation less tragic, to someone who is grieving. No matter how well-intentioned, the attempt will always fail.
“I know how you feel.”
“I lost my dad, too.”
“It took me a long time to get over it.”
It’s not about YOU. Don’t try to make them feel better by telling them you’ve been through worse. It’s not a competition.
It is important to understand that no words will take away pain or fix how someone is feeling. While it’s natural to want to lessen their pain, empathy teaches us that the most important thing we can do is LISTEN and provide compassionate support while they’re going through the grieving process. Grief is certainly a process, and for some, it’s a long one. Do not try to rush people through it; it’s different for each individual, and for many, it’s a lifetime of learning to live without their loved one. There is no such thing as “closure”; simply a “new normal” in their lives.
Now that I’ve frightened you into thinking this is a hopeless situation to know what to say, please know that it’s not. You can say A LOT that will provide comfort and convey your compassion for how they’re feeling, and that’s truly the goal for all of us!
Be authentic, be honest, and speak from the heart. Use their loved one’s name or their relationship to them when speaking. Some examples are…
“I’m so very sorry to hear the news that Bill died. This must be so difficult for you.”
“Your grandfather was a great man; I can’t imagine how much he will be missed.”
“I’m always here for you, and I will check in with you to see how you’re doing next week.”
“I don’t know what to say; I’m so sad and at a complete loss for words.”
“I wish I knew what to say, but I just want you to know that I care about you.”
“My heart is breaking for you and your entire family.”
How many of us have seen someone post something very sad or tragic online, only to see an endless number of “Sorry for your loss” statements. While it’s not necessarily a bad sentiment to write, it goes back to the use of cliches. Instead, make it more personal and authentic. Take the time to type something meaningful about them or the person they’ve lost. Empathy feels real when the words used are unique and individual to a specific person.
It’s one thing to say something nice; it’s another thing to actually DO something. We’ve all heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Nothing could be truer than in the circumstance of someone grieving. When possible, check in on the person in whatever manner seems most appropriate. Ask if they might be up for a phone call or a video visit, perhaps have their favorite food or treat delivered to them, or send a handwritten card to them to let them know they’re in your thoughts. While many people receive a lot of attention immediately following the death of a loved one, some of the most difficult times occur after the initial attention has subsided. Continue to check in with them and let them know you care. It will make an indelible impression as to your authenticity as a friend who truly cares, and will remind them that they are not alone or forgotten.
I hope this has helped to alleviate some of the feelings of awkwardness that can occur when trying to comfort someone that is grieving. Learning, listening, and sharing with others helps us to honor the memories of those lost and to educate others in providing a more compassionate response to families, friends, and loved ones who are faced with grief or sadness. Together, we can make a positive difference in the lives of others during the most difficult of times.
Kindness always matters. Always be kind.