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Episode 22: What to Say When Someone is Grieving

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

We all have times when we encounter a family member or friend who is suffering from loss. Their grief is legitimate and serious, and often, we are at a loss as to what to say. What do we say to make them feel better? In this episode, Mitch simplifies the emotional dynamics of grief and offers help in how to approach this type of situation.

" Many of us run into people that are grieving and we just don't know what to say. Some of us feel the need to say something that will make our friend feel better. Some of us feel the need to ignore the huge elephant in the room and just talk about something else entirely. They need to talk. It's part of the grieving process, and it's part of their healing. "


Hello, and welcome to Living With Hospice. My name is Mitch Ware. t's my pleasure to be your host today. Come on in, grab a cup of freshly brewed coffee, or if you'd like, a cold drink out of the fridge. You might even find a Tab in there. I think my wife and I are the only two people that drink Tab anymore. We're probably keeping that part of Coca Cola in business.

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A while back we did an episode on how do you talk to someone who's dying and that episode was very well received. And I think it's something that we all do and can relate to. It's just awkward. Many of us run into people that are grieving and we just don't know what to say. Some of us feel the need to say something that will make our friend feel better. Some of us feel the need to ignore the huge elephant in the room and just talk about something else entirely... kind of denial in some of us just clam up. Some of us just don't just don't talk at all, or we just avoid the whole thing. We don't even go there. We don't even go see that person. Or if we're with that person when we find out, we find a way to get away because we just don't know what to say. And it's just too darn painfully awkward!!

Let's look at a few observations that I've gathered along the way. First, when we encounter somebody that's obviously grieving, we have to remember that this is not about us. This is about them. A good approach is to say, "I'm sorry about your situation." You know, whether it's death or loss of a house or whatever, they're grieving. They need you to invest in them and only them at that moment. You can ask if they want to talk. And if they do, the best way to comfort them is to be a good listener.

They need to talk. It's part of the grieving process, and it's part of their healing. As granny used to say, you cannot be a good listener if your mouth is working. Boy, that's so true.

You do not need to be a cheerleader.

You don't need to be verbal.

You don't need to have all the answers.

Just let them speak. And just listen.

Second, and this is very hard for some of us to not say, "Oh, well, you know, my uncle or my aunt had that happen to them and Dang, it was awful."

That doesn't help anything!!

Also, don't tell the story about your loved one or friend that was sick and then say," Oh, yeah, you know, okay. They died. It was really awful." I can't tell you how many times I've heard people heard stories about people that do that. Or I've, I've actually been in in the presence of someone who actually did that.

Do not be that person!!

We're often caught off guard and and we try to do our best to deal with the situation and at the same time we kind of struggle with our own feelings and it's kind of a mess. I get it. After all, we're all human. And I guess we use humans know that misery loves company.

I catch myself falling into that old, "Oh, I can relate my so and so... or my mom, whomever...had a similar situation." I've even caught myself saying, "Yeah, you know, I had a patient that went through this and..." Sometimes it's right. Sometimes it fits. Sometimes, it's encouraging. But often, it isn't. Because again, this is not about you, it's about them.

So, how do you know when is a good time to share info like that? Well, ask yourself, are you sharing this to be part of the "Yep, me too" crowd or are you sharing it solely to inform your grieving friend that there's another option or there's an alternative or there's hope or share some good info with them? In other words, what is your motivation? And I know these things happen so fast, especially when you're caught off guard. Last thing you can do is self analyze your thoughts and feelings.

But if you can, stop and consider whether you are sharing this for them or for yourself to break the awkwardness and give you something to say so you don't just stand there quietly in awkwar. This is tough medicine, but it's important And truth be told, we are all guilty of needing To say something and so we say something and sometimes that something is not good, it's not appropriate.

Third, tell your friend or loved one that you're there to listen if they want to talk and you're there to hear them. If they want to talk, you're there to be with them. If they need you or want you there, or you're there to provide a shoulder to cry on, if that is what they want. And let it be just that, again, no need to struggle with something to say, just be that shoulder there. It's critical for your loved one to know that's their grief. The sense of loss that they're going through is legitimate, and their loss is acknowledged by you.

Let me say that again.

It's critical for your loved one to know that their grief is legitimate and their loss is acknowledged by you. People who are hurting need to know they're cared for. One way to do that is just by affirming and validating their feelings is legitimate, common and normal. It's appropriate. Those feelings are reasonable under these circumstances, they're okay.

Fourth, when your loved one tells you how they feel, receive what they say is genuine and sincere. Don't judge them. Don't think they're just being overly sensitive, or they're weak. Especially guys!! Don't make those judgments. Again, we all need validation and people that are hurting need it in the worst way and more than once. Sometimes you go back the next day or a week later and they're still hurting, especially if they lost like their whole house or a loved one, for sure. And that's obvious. But the people that lose things, like they had their favorite car that they've restored with their kids for 10 years, and they got it on the road, and it's beautiful. It's gonna be a family heirloom and they come out the garage one day and it's gone. Well, if you're not a car person, you probably think what's the big deal about that? I mean, isn't it insured? That's not the point. That kind of loss hurts for a long time, because there's so much love and sentimentality into something like that.

Fifth, be genuine and sincere in what you do and say, don't be patronizing. Do not express pity. We say that, again, don't express pity. Again, many times we're caught off guard in these situations and we really don't have time to think about it right. That happens to me a lot. Your sincerity is important. Be transparent in your concern. Keep it in an honest level and keep it about them. Not about you, not about your aunt, not about somebody else that has gone through something the same as you keep it about them. And as granny said, be a good listener.

Sixth. This really could be part of number five, but is vitally important for you and your loved one, so I'm highlighting it on its own. Don't be afraid to show tears. Tears are so important.

Guys. This means you too!

We show our hearts in our sincerity when we shed our tears. We express and communicate our concerns, our true inner feelings come out when tears show up. Shedding those tears shows your loved one that you care and that they matter that you heard what they said. And what they're going through is acknowledged and it's legitimate. shedding tears is a level of intimacy that everybody needs when they're hurting. So let them happen.

Okay, the next observation, number seven, is to just be present. We talked about this a lot in other episodes. It's one of the most important things when dealing with someone who is hurting someone whose feeling a sense of loss.That means just sitting or standing quietly. Just our presence speaks volumes. Sometimes, it's best to just be just be there. Share the same space in and just be quiet and just be present. Have you noticed that in just being quiet for some of us if our mind is racing on other things is just really awkward? I suggest during these times, think about what you want your heart to literally say to your loved ones. Maybe you pray for them. Think about the memories. You have with them. Think about your relationship with them and just be at peace with just being there, just being present.

Finall, eighth ask how you can help. Most of the time you'll hear, I don't know, or you already are, thank you. Don't discount that. Tons of people will bring tons of food and snacks and drinks and things. But almost nobody, I mean, nobody will just be there for them and is willing to sit quietly with them or to sit and let them just talk. And that's because it's uncomfortable can be uncomfortable and can be awkward. It requires some emotional strength. To do that, you have to open your ears, turn off your mind to your own agenda. things going on in your life. Close your mouth, open your ears, and let them talk. And when the talking is done, let your heart speak to theirs. And it's one of the best gifts you can give anyone who's grieving.

Here are a few other important things to consider. People begin grieving long before someone passes away. Most people start grieving when they first hear a prognosis. So we need to be mindful of that as we enter this end of life journey with them. People are grieving the loss of jobs, loss of friends, a loss of a family pet even. We lost a dog that we had for 13 years. And my kids took it rough and into this day, which is many years later, if you talk to them about that they'll admit that was a really sad time. They really loved that dog. But there's people who lose a marriage or they lose their position for no reason of their own. This is legitimate grief, these these are legitimate losses that impact lives and impacts them for their lifetime, and maybe even for their children's lifetime.

There are many reasons people grieve, and we run into them all the time. They're in our circle of friends and acquaintances. And you know what? The grief process is the same and how we should handle it is the same - with empathy, with transparency with dignity and a supportive attitude. Above all, be there and be present.

There was a guy in mid Michigan, who was a halo driver in a big grocery warehouse. This guy was so stereotypical, he was a mountain of a man. He was an ex Marine who just happened to be very, very proud of his service. And very vocal to those who served in other parts of the military, if you know what I mean. And for the sake of privacy, we'll just call him Buzz. Buzz was a tough guy. I mean, he made it known. He was a tough guy. Lived that persona and built it up whenever he could. He was a union steward. He was a safety committee member. He was an officer in the local VFW. Oh, yeah, he was a semi professional stone lifter. Yeah, that's a thing. Who knew?

At any rate, Buzz was, you know, he was all that in a bag of chips.

One day, Buzz came home to catch his wife crying. And when he asked her what's wrong, she said she'd been to the doctor and that she had some bad news. There was something wrong with her pancreas and her surgeon and the doctors were referring her to an oncologist.

Buzz was shocked. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. His wife, his beautiful Julie, was the healthiest person on earth. She's a high school athlete. She's nonsmoker. She's a woman who ran half marathons for charity. There must be a mistake somewhere.

Buzz tried to cheer her up and even offered to take her out to supper, saying let's go out and grab some pizza. She just looked at him with total disgust. She says, "pizza??? You're thinking about pizza. Ah, you big ugly lug!!" and stormed out of the room. Buzz had no idea what he did or said was wrong. But was willing to apologize for whatever it was. He entered into the bedroom that Julie had run into and he did just that.

As weeks went on, Julie took her treatments and faithfully followed all of her doctor's orders. Buzz was right there with her every step of the way. A few months later, his beautiful Julie lost her fight with cancer. Buzz, being the tough guy that he is kept up a good front at the visitation memorial service at the VFW. He was taking his week of funeral leave off plus some additional vacation days, but wasn't going to let his true feelings surface rains don't do that. You keep them in check and you move on.

One evening, an old service buddy of His name's Zack stop by his house. He found Buzz out back working on this old wooden fishing boat. After some small talk with old buddies, Zack expressed his condolences and it was just awkward. It felt like he needed to say something. And he said the right thing. "I'm really sorry for your loss, but I don't I don't know what else to say. If you want to talk about it, I'm here." And then he asked, " how can I help buzz?"

Buzz looked him in the eye and said, "Zack, I mean, nothing anybody can do for me now."

Now Zack had seen a lot of loss in combat. And back home. He was now a policeman and he pulled people out of burning cars and helped console an elderly couple when their lifetime home burned down around them, right to the ground. He buried his own brother who battled ALS. Well, Zach knew that Buzz was really hurting inside and so he sat with him and he enjoyed a cold beverage and just kind of watched the birds and squirrels play there in the backyard.

Buzz eventually said, "you know, thanks, man. just thanks."

And Zack just kind of looked at him and nodded his head and Buzz said, "no really man. Thanks for not trying to make me feel better with some kind of stupid platitude or some Hallmark stuff."

They had a good laugh in the old marine buddy. Zach just winked again and took another sip of his drink. Eventually said, "you know, how can I help you buzz? What do you need? "

Buzz replied, "nothing's gonna fill this void of that Julie left." Tears came rolling down his cheeks and he began to tell Zach stories about how they first met and how she was the love of his life. And how he felt just lost without her. Life just isn't the same. It's like half of him has gone. Zach just sat there and let it all sink in and let Buzz just pour out his heart and try to explain thing. He didn't say anything special. He was just present. As Buzz went on, he told Zach things, feelings that he'd never shared about this beautiful Julie. And the most important was how defenseless and how lost he felt without her, and nothing can fix that. Nothing can take her place. Now both guys were battling back tears and wiping their eyes and Zack, the old marine buddy said, " You know,I don't have any answers for you, man. All I can say is I'm here for you. I'll help you however I can. And just like we were over there in that country, I got your back. And I know you got mine. And I know we'll get through this. This one too. I know we will."

Zach was being an excellent friend. He knew that he couldn't fix this loss for Buzz. He knew there was nothing magical he could even think of, let alone say, to make the hurt go away. The best thing he could do is be there for his friend. When his buddy needed him the most he was there. And he didn't have to say anything. He just had to be there to be present.

And that, my friends, was more than enough.

When we encounter someone who is grieving, let it be their grief, tune into them, turn off your agenda. Just let it sink in. Listen, listen to what they're saying. And when when they're done talking, you don't have to come up with lsome sort of fancy platitude or a hallmark remark. just be there with them. Let them know you're sorry it happened and ask if you can help. Ask how you can help. Ask when you can help and now If they want to talk and if they do, and most do, eventually, they really do. Let them and just listen. Thanks for listening today.

If you like our podcast, please leave comments and thumbs up on the platform that you're listening to. And please tell your friends that are approaching or perhaps in an end of life experience or hospice experience, tell them about this podcast. You'll find us almost everywhere that you can get podcast nowadays. And you can email us directly if you'd like at and you can find our website at We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, I'm Mitch Ware for LWH. Have a blessed day.

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