Adults are amused at the childish horror of a toddler losing their blanket. Parents smile when they anticipate that the two-year-old is not going to like giving up being the baby of the family when the new baby arrives. Yet Adjusting to loss is a fact of life.
Beginning with the loss of the safe, warm environment of the womb until the news that one will soon lose their physical life, our journey contains various levels and degrees of loss. Nobody really wants to experience loss, pain, heartache, disappointment, grief or mourning. The truth, however, emerges that they are all a part of human existence. These things will happen to all of us at some point.
The bigger question concerning loss that we all encounter on a regular basis is, “What do you say to a friend or loved one when they experience severe loss?”
Most of us have a cliché or two that we blurt out in a nervous effort to get the moment over with. Unfortunately common statements like, “They are in a better place” or “I know how you must feel” really don’t do much for the pain the griever feels. I learned from personal experience that few would-be comforters are comfortable with helpful statements like “Your heart must really be hurting right now.”
My first devastating encounter with grief came through the death of my wife. I was in my late 30s, administrator and teacher at a college and parenting four young children. I didn’t know a human could hurt that much. It was all so new to me and I had no idea that some of my viewpoints about deep mourning were so off base. The “hole in my soul” haunted me.
In desperation I became a student of grief. And along the way I discovered that understanding a few of the basics about the grieving process (i.e. a broken heart) could help others know what to say to those who were encountering one of the many losses life throws at them.
Grieving is not only normal, it is essential. This knowledge applies to those who make up a support circle around the griever. Suppose you cut your arm. It bleeds. Loss is a cut and grief is the natural result. A cut requires time and attention to heal. It may need another person to help care for it. Ignoring the cut can lead to infection. Similarly thwarted grief can cause issues that will surface sooner or later. And grief is best processed with the help of friends or relatives.
Just like First-Aid 101, there are things that can be learned. Good friends need to understand that the list of losses that merit being classified as “grievable” is much larger than many would admit.
One of the dominant methods, which is vastly ineffective, of dealing with grief and loss is avoidance. Our default ways of coping with grief by changing the subject, stuffing it down, explaining it away in a feeble effort to prevent grief’s symptoms hurts the griever more than you realize.
Beware of implying that a mourner should “snap out of it” too quickly. “This is behind you now,” and “It’s time to get on with your life,” are both comments that fall into that category. Prematurely stated observations to that effect can do more harm than good. Likewise, opinions that begin with “you should” or even “you will” are not helpful. Transparent statements resonate with grievers: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.” Listening closely to the bereaved within the first year of a loss can reveal what comments will help them most.
Most people mistakenly think the mourning process is purely an emotional condition, ignoring that it is a physical condition as well. We tend to accept that dying happens among the elderly every day. But it is also true that if you are married, it WILL happen to one of you, eventually. My case is unusual because it not only happened during my younger years, it came again twenty-two years later, when death took my second wife.
The lessons I had gathered from my first wife’s death were unavoidably refreshed. My notes and observations took on a deeper, more refined form.
One close friend admitted to me, “I didn’t know what to say” following months of unexplained silence. Others were just obviously ill-at-ease. But when we’d talk and I explained what it was like in the grieving process and how I could have been helped, their responses were receptive. I began to see that most people, whether friends or family or in professional capacities, really did want to connect with a person in grief, but fear, ignorance or verbal clumsiness held them back.
I sensed a deep compulsion inside me, “Don’t hoard your lessons.” Requests for written versions of my story and lessons mounted. And my friend’s awkward admission became the title of my book, I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY: Being a Better Friend To Those Experiencing Loss.
(Dr. David Knapp is the founder of Grief Relief Ministries and is a national conference and seminar speaker. He has served as a college professor and president, and has been a personal counselor. Dr. Knapp and his wife Crystal live in Mesa, Az. He can be reached for a booking at 866-596-0470 or through his web page. His book can also be ordered online. www.griefreliefministries.com/book )
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Making a difference in your world by being a better friend;
Grief is indeed a difficult subject to face. For most of us it does not attract our attention as a topic that we naturally wish to be an expert on. Yet, coping with loss qualifies as a natural part of life. Because you have read this book, you are ahead of many of your peers and relatives in your ability to deal with grieving.
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Knowing what to say, or not say, often comes through a better understanding of the grieving process. Such understanding does not always have to be obtained through personal experience. We can benefit from that of others willing to be honest about their feelings and journey following a loss.
Hopefully the experiences and observations collected in this book have increased your awareness of the grieving process. You are now more skillfully equipped to be a better friend to those around you who experience loss. Most of us will encounter at least one person within the next year who will be called on to process some sort of loss. It may even be you.
Comments of comfort should not be geared to “fix” the problem of grief for the bereaved. Commonly, too many who have not dealt with the mourning process will attempt to avoid it when faced with the grief of others. Grief cannot be fixed, it needs to be processed. So, the first thing we can do is to acknowledge the pain instead of trying to make it go away fast.
Grief is the acknowledgement of loss emotionally. It is mostly a heart problem, not a mind challenge. Heart statements go farther in comforting the bereaved than head statements early on. Logically explaining away grief does little in soothing the hurt in the heart. Mind logic can play a part in long-term processing of loss but it comes up short when the most encompassing pain at the moment is emotional.
Mourners are sensitive to unsupportive comments that seem to minimize their grief. Grieving comes from deep within us. Denying it or diminishing it can be perceived as a personal criticism. Such implications may cause guilt and withdrawal on the part of the grieving and be a hindrance to their ability to process their loss victoriously. Allowing them to grieve will uphold them better.
Avoiding grievers socially, or avoiding the topic of their loss, stifles their grieving process. Grief can become the proverbial “elephant in the room” with grievers. They feel it even more than their friends. Excluding them from social events and conversations only accentuates their pain. Avoidance does not soften the pain for them. To eliminate the topic of their grieving experience and the one they have lost is to ignore the most important thing that is happening in their life. Good friends don’t do that.
Avoid time limits. Setting a time limit on how and how long any one person is allowed to grieve over a particular loss can be demeaning to the griever. They can feel like you are being disrespectful towards their loss or loved one. Be aware of timing in words of comfort. You need to be discerning in knowing when to make certain comments to a griever. Being a better friend revolves around listening and supporting their journey, instead of limiting it.
The grieving are not looking for logic statements of being told what to do. What they need is a listening ear. No one likes to be “bossed” around under the best of circumstances. To “command” a person who is grieving in an attempt to “talk them out of it” may only drive them away from you as a person with no effective help to their pain. Instructive statements must be well-timed and presented in the form of suggestions or examples. Grievers need to be heard more than directed.
Theological lectures are seldom of much relief for the pain of new grief. Theological arguments at the time of loss can be misconstrued as a rebuke. This can come across as rejection and not a form of comfort. Religious beliefs are often embraced in the mind through the logic door. Emotional pain is seldom soothed deeply through that avenue. Again, timing can be very important if this topic needs to be addressed.
Consolation for the bereaved needs to be more about their personal pain than about the one they have lost. The temptation is very strong to talk more about the person or item lost, than about the needs of the griever. The deepest problem is the emotional pain inside. Logical statements about the person or items lost can be of help. However, if we ignore the heartache being experienced, we will not help our friend to work through their journey as effectively.
Comments that might be interpreted as a judgmental attitude are of no comfort to the bereaved. No one likes to be told they are wrong or at fault for the loss. The bereaved commonly cope with forms of guilt in the normal flow of the process. It is no help to add blame to their pain. They are at a very vulnerable time in their lives and your words must be chosen carefully.
It is common for the supporting friend to feel a certain amount of discomfort but this shouldn’t be a hindrance. Remember that your words of comfort need to revolve around the feelings of the bereaved. Many of the “What Not to Say” comments were blurted out by would-be comforters uneasy with their own feelings. It’s helpful to stay away from statements that begin with, “I always say” and “you should just” to grievers. Keep your attention on the emotional state of your friend.
Recognizing the griever’s present pain has more value than attempts to empathize by comparing to your past losses. The tendency to “one up” on a griever in an effort to sympathize with them usually results in a comparison game that can diminish the pain of the griever. Also, since each person grieves differently, it is not usually beneficial to make comparisons but simply to seek understanding of the mourner’s experience.
Knowing the right thing to say is only half of the responsibility of being a supportive emotional caregiver. The other half revolves around the doing. I am truly grateful to the people in my life who not only knew what to say but followed through with the supportive action. Many of my friends and family were active the day and weeks following the death of each of my wives. Others called me months later asking to go for a walk and talk, or go out to eat. My family openly talked with each other and me about their mom’s memories and how much they missed her. I was asked often by acquaintances to speak publicly about my grieving journey.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Life goes on. Mine has indeed progressed in fine style. The evidence that I have “practiced what I preach” about the mourning process becomes apparent with the developments in my life beyond my grieving period. I am living proof that the suggestions you have read in this book work and have merit.
I documented the points of progress in the grieving and healing process by writing a “progress report” to my children. This public diary served as a teaching tool for the family on grief and a victory record for me.
The following year after Judith’s death, after much re-definition of who I am, my emotions and focus in life began to settle to a new level. My vision to write this book was established. I received a refreshed job description in my career work. I moved out of the house where Judith died. With help from one of my daughters, I established a profile on Christian Mingle.
Each of the new, solid developments in my life was possible because my emotions had been given clear and ample time to grieve fully by my “leaning into” the process and having those around me who gave me permission to do so with their support.
Many of these changes have given me a new, full and purposeful life. First of all, I met Crystal Wacker. What a lady! She has entered my life with love and wit that brightens every day. Our marriage has completed my life at a whole new level. Her support for me in life’s challenges and accomplishments has been invaluable. In addition to her continued work as editor of Reach Up Magazine, she helps me in my writing and speaking engagements.
WHAT TO SAY
WHAT NOT TO SAY
Taken from the book by David Knapp, I Didn’t Know What to Say: Being a Better Friend to Those Who Experience Loss, 2015. For a better understanding as to why the comments in black are more helpful than the statements in red, get the entire book at www.
Your loss is a very difficult thing to go through, I am sure.
Get a grip!
I will always remember him/her.
I don’t want to talk about the dead. Let’s talk about the living.
Do you need someone to go with you to choose a casket or marker?
I know what you are going through. I lost a kitten once.
Can we go for a walk on Sunday afternoon and chat?
You need to take your mind totally off your pain.
Tell me something special about your early days with him/her.
You should be thankful he/she is out of pain.
It’s so good you have the freedom to cry/express your feelings.
You need to get over this.
No, you are not crazy. You are grieving and it is okay. This will pass.
I know EXACTLY how you feel.
I realize this must be hard for you.
Call if you ever need anything.
So, how are you feeling today?
Let me tell you what you need to do.
I understand that you feel the way you do…and it is okay.
You can’t bring him/her back. God is in control.
Can I help you find others who have had a similar loss?
This happened because God had something/someone better for you.
Can you join our group for dinner this Friday?
Call me sometime.
His/her memories are a legacy of love.
You need to let go of him/her so you can start living again.
Are you up for a chat now or next week?
You look great. You must be over it.
Thanks for having the freedom to talk to me about your feelings right now.
How are you holding up?
Here is a favorite memory I have of him/her.
So now you are all alone. What a shame.
You made the right decisions surrounding his/her death.
At least he/she is not a vegetable.
Can I call you on an anniversary that is important to you?
You need to get all his belongings out of the house as soon as possible.
Can I come by and get your grocery list on Friday?
You are not making sense. Snap out of it.
Can I come by and help clean on Tuesday?
How does it feel to have survived his/her death?
You should be thankful it wasn’t worse.
Tell me about your child/loved one. What was he/she like?
Your child is in a better place. God needed another angel.
I miss him/her too.
You should be happy for the time you had with him/her.
You did all you could do at the time.
How are you ever going to forgive yourself?
I am praying for you and your family.
Well, at least you won’t have to potty train that child.
I have no idea of the depth of your pain but I am here for you.
You can always have/adopt other children.
You are lucky to at least have other children.
His/her memory will live on in my heart.
His/her time was up. His/her death was meant to be.
Can I take the kids to the zoo on Saturday?
(say nothing and avoid all contact)
I have been remembering you a lot lately and I love you.
You are lucky to have had them in your life for as long as you did.
I know he/she loved/relied on you a lot.
At least they had a good life.
He/she knew how much you loved him/her.
I understand your pain. I lost someone once.
You need to only remember the good and forget all the bad.
Your hurt must be big right now.
Grandpa is sleeping.
(say nothing but give a hug)
Keep your happy face on.
What was it like when…?
Life must go on.
I love you and am proud of you.
Now you are the head/leader of your house.
I loved him/her too and will miss him/her.
God needed him/her in heaven.
Can I help you write a letter about your loss/grief?
You must not speak ill of the dead.
You are the man (woman) of the house now…buck up.
I wish I had the right words. I just want you to know I care.
I don’t want to hear details. I just want you better.
Can I come by Wednesday evening to visit?
Wow. You look sad/awful.
I can’t take away your pain but I can be a friend.
You need to keep a stiff upper lip.
Have things happened to ease your pain?
I could NEVER go through what you are right now.
What have you done to deal with your grief/loss?
Now that she/he is dead, you should get a pet.
I was shocked to hear of your loss. I’m a friend who cares.
You must feel as bad as I did when…..
I am so sorry for your loss.
Just stay busy and you will get by.
Tell me about him/her.
You must stop crying. You might upset someone.
I feel so sad for you.
You must be strong for others.
What is something I can do for you this week?
He/she must have brought this upon himself/herself.
Your heart break must go deep.
You need to be alone when you grieve.
It breaks my heart to see you in such pain.
You need to stop feeling bad/crying.
I’m sure you cherish your time with him/her.
Don’t burden others with your feelings.
How have you been feeling this week?
He/she is with God now.
Is today a better day for you?
All things must pass. Time will heal.
I’m not sure what to say but I want you to know I care.
You will find another to replace them.
I can’t fix your hurts but I can be here for you.
You can’t fall apart.
Can I call you to chat on Saturday evening?
“What is done, is done,” I always say.
I am so sorry this is happening to you.
This is a blessing in disguised.
We have missed you lately.
I have had a bigger loss then you so I know it is not as bad as it could be.
May God bless you and give you strength and comfort.
If you had more faith, he/she would not have died.
What do you need most today?
God does not give us more than we can handle.
What would you like to say to him/her right now?
You need to forget about him/her and move on.
You must be hurting deeply.
He/she is in a better place now.
God mourns with those who mourn.
It is too soon to face your grief.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
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Many college graduates never work in the field of study in which they receive a degree. I am not among that group. I found a deep sense of fulfillment in finding a career about which I was passionate from the start. I served with a religious non-profit organization that was very team-oriented.
On one of our first encounters with the leadership of this group their deep heart-felt convictions and passion showed through. I remember turning to my wife, Ruth, and asking her, “So, do you think you could spend the rest of your life working with people like that?” Through her tears she mumbled, “Yes!”
Following our year-and-one-half of orientation and leadership training, we were assigned to a teaching and leadership position. The next eight years saw the addition of our four children and the privilege of working in partnership with other veteran leaders. The opportunity to become closely associated with new candidates who came through the training facility deepened our roots in the organization further than anything I had ever experienced in my life. Indeed, we became closer to many of our co-workers than we were with many family members.
My next assignment was to teach and serve as president at a junior-college-level training school in another state. We moved and quickly settled into our new roles there. With loyalty as one of my personal character strengths, my commitment to the job given to me ran deep. Our family life revolved around the work I did at the school.
Then tragedy struck. Cancer. During those seven years of battling cancer together as a family, I plowed through the personal stress it forced on me and whole-heartedly continued my roles at the school, only asking for breaks to take Ruth to her doctor appointments. I did this right up to the day she died.
Two years after Ruth’s death I married again. Judith and I each had four teenagers to bring into the marriage. The only issue our marriage created revolved around a policy of the organization that all members take a one-year orientation training like the one I taught at for my first eight years with them. Judith had not received this training before we were married.
This policy had been “law” with this organization since its inception. None of the leaders at that time had the freedom (nerve) to make exceptions. The “pink slip” came in the form of a decision that for us to continue with the group, we would have to resign from the school, move our family to another state and attend this training program as students — actions that were logistically impossible for our family. We were effectively OUT of the organization.
I remember that difficult day. One of the leaders came into my office and began with, “Dave, this is very hard for me to say.” My entire insides seemed to begin aching all at once. I was stunned, hurt and felt totally abandoned by people whom I thought to be my friends. My heart was so wounded I did not even say anything in my defense. I WAS OUT. I had not done anything wrong.
My strong sense of loyalty prevented me from showing my pain and rejection. I defended the leadership and stuffed my grief very deep. I never shed a tear. I simply wrestled with my grief in my soul and my thoughts.
Following the fulfillment of our responsibilities with that school we moved our family across the USA to begin a new life in a new community at a new job. I was working two jobs and blending eight teenagers. Needless to say, busyness often prevented time for reflection.
Judith was the only person who really knew I was a hurting guy. My kids noticed I had become more “quiet” at our meal table. A co-worker at the new school commented that I did not seem to be the leader/outgoing guy he would have expected from a former president of a college. My spirit was indeed hampered by my repressed grief.
The loss of my job and the position I served in for 14 years was the second most difficult loss I had ever experienced. Only losing my first wife, Ruth, was harder up to that time. I did not deal with this grieving process well. It extended for three years.
Finally, however, I gained victory through coming to grips with the grieving and releasing it. I was alone on our property with some livestock we owned. I suddenly burst into tears and sobbed for the longest time as I remembered some of my close friends who were still with that organization who “let me go.” They were able to continue carrying out the passion for that work we both shared. I had been deprived of that. I was forced out against my will. One final thing I did that helped me was to write a grief letter to some of the leadership team involved. Doing so provided a measure of freedom to my spirit.
I have heard many other examples where men who lost their jobs went into deep depression for a long time. Like me, these men often found their personal identity in their work. When that is lost, they flounder for identity and security. Since many men seem to think mourning is not “manly,” they try to tough it out instead of grieving freely for victory.
One thing that might have been helpful to me during those three years of grief would have been for someone to open the subject of my job loss and ask me how I got through it or what it was like going through that loss emotionally. Even asking me how I felt the day I was “let go” may have opened the topic for my heart to be expressed and freed from some pain.
WOMEN IN JOB LOSS
Experiencing grief due to the loss of a job is not gender-specific. It may be true that men tend to attach their identity to their job, while women tend to find security from their job; however, the loss can be just as traumatic for either.
Crystal realized that her loss of a job caused depression brought on by her grief. She began sleeping late and not even dressing to go out for the day. Those who helped her most were friends who tuned into her experience through caring. One friend called her each morning for a while to encourage her to get out of bed and face a new day. Crystal soon began getting up and dressing as if she were going to work. This lightened her spirits and helped her work through the deep hollow feelings of loss.
Not all of her friends were as understanding. One, whom she visited shortly after her job loss, did not factor her grief into her less-than-perky actions and criticized her “lack of caring.” This can be a challenge to all of us to be sensitive and give allowances to friends we know who face losses in the normal course of life, like losing a job.
« Point to Ponder »
Sympathy for the griever by recognizing their present pain has more value than attempts to empathize by comparing to your past losses.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
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