The Importance of Acknowledging Grief
Blogger Liz Millar recounts that after her dad died, she remembers returning to the office and feeling uncomfortable because some of her closest colleagues didn’t mention what had happened.
“My life had altered in the most profoundly sad way and yet the people I sat next to every day acted as absolutely nothing had changed,” she writes. “They were scared of saying the wrong thing; worried about upsetting me. One thing’s clear to me, though. Usually, the worse thing we can do is say nothing at all.”
Many of us at one time might not have said anything when someone has faced a loss because we simply didn’t know what to say. No magical saying can make the grief go away. However, offering words of sympathy is appropriate and appreciated. You might think that no matter what you say, it won’t matter. It won’t bring the person back.
But it does matter, to the one who is grieving. Even though words can’t fix anything, sympathy acknowledges what the other person is going through. Silence from friends can hurt, agrees author Kathleen Buckstaff. “It is far better for friends to say something to someone who is grieving than to not say anything. Reaching out is important, even if it feels awkward, even if you don’t know what to say.”
And if you don’t know what to say, the best response is, “I don’t know what to say,” says researcher, author, and speaker Dr. Brené Brown. If you are at a loss for words and would like some suggestions, check out our blog article What To Write in A Sympathy Card.
It’s Not About You, Even Though It Feels Like It
When a friend loses a loved one, many of us probably respond with something along the lines of “I’m so sorry.” It’s appropriate, and we mean that too, expressing our sympathy to acknowledge their loss. But what does it mean to be empathetic vs. expressing sympathy?
Both empathy and sympathy deal with emotions. And emotions can be uncomfortable. Sympathy is when we feel “for” someone (I am sorry for you for your loss) and empathy is when we feel “with” another person (I understand the loss you feel).
Some of us want to avoid feeling uncomfortable altogether, which is why we might avoid acknowledging a loved one is grieving. Our own discomfort gets in the way of comforting others when they need it the most. When your loved one shares a painful experience, do you try to lighten the moment?
Psychology Today author Kate Thieda posed that question to readers in an article about what it means to be empathetic. If you answered yes, you might need some practice. Most of us do. While humor can be a good thing and can be associated with resilience, it is a tool that needs to be used at the right time. In the situation above, it’s used to avoid feeling uncomfortable with your loved one’s pain. And our brains are wired to run from pain—including emotional pain—whether it is ours or someone else’s, says Thieda.
Sympathy = Acknowledging
Sympathy recognizes that someone is suffering, whether you’ve gone through the same experience. Since you might not have gone through the death of a loved one, you will still have an intellectual understanding of what that might mean to the other person. “Giving sympathy does not mean that you must have experienced the same fate yourself,” writes Alex in her blog What’s the Difference Between ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Empathy’?
We convey sympathy to acknowledge what the other person is going through. Think about the sympathy cards we send when someone dies. When we send them, we let them know we recognize their grief, continues Alex. “We show support by recognizing what they are going through is painful to them.”
Empathy = Understanding
Empathy means you can understand what someone else is going through because you have been through something similar. “It offers understanding with no judgment,” says Dr. Brown. Helping the other person feel understood is the key to empathy. While nothing you can say will make it better, what does make things better “is connection.”
The challenge is that empathy “requires us to reflect on our own uncomfortable feelings,” she continues. Meaning empathy can be “harder in the short term because we are confronting those feelings, but the long-term reward is a deeper connection.”
Like all skills, empathy takes practice.
It’s easy to confuse empathy with sharing a similar story because you want to let the other person know how much you get it, but now is not the time (unless they ask you to). Now is the time to listen. Saying simply “that must be really hard” leaves room for the other person to share or allows them to tell you that what they really need is for you to just sit silently with them.
Someone we know was in a meeting and shared about how shaken they were about their neighbor’s son’s dying the night before. Instead of focusing on how that made that person feel, not one but multiple members of the group spoke up about how many people they had known who also died in a similar way.
Remember when we said it’s not about you? The person sharing had no support for what they were experiencing—their feelings about what happened were minimized and overshadowed by everyone else telling their own stories. Instead of telling your story, stay curious. Say something like, “that must be hard for you.” And then listen to what they have to say.
4 Keys to Expressing Empathy
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Stay out of judgment and listen.
Recognize the emotion in another person that you have maybe felt before.
Communicate that you can recognize that emotion.
Dr. Brown notes that empathy rarely starts with the words, “At least…” (such as at least you had him in your life for such a long time).
Moving From Sympathy to Empathy
Expressing sympathy to someone who is grieving is almost always appreciated. If, though, you’re looking to create a deeper connection, the following are six more tips on how to practice empathy (excerpted from Harvard Medical School blog).
NAME NAMES. Don’t be afraid to mention the deceased. It won’t make your friend any sadder, although it may prompt tears. Saying how much you’ll miss the person is much better than simply saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
DON’T ASK “HOW ARE YOU? The answer is obvious—”not good”— it’s the same greeting you would offer anyone and doesn’t acknowledge that your friend has suffered a devastating loss. Instead try, “How are you feeling today?”
REACH OUT. Most bereaved people find it difficult to reach out and need others to take the initiative. Call to express your condolences and to check in over the next few weeks and months when others may stop calling. Put reminders on your calendar.
HELP OUT. Don’t just ask if you can “do anything.” That transfers the burden to the bereaved, and he or she may be reluctant to make a request. Just do it by bringing dinner over, shopping for groceries and dropping them off, cleaning up their kitchen, or doing yard work.
LISTEN, DON’T ADVISE. Be the friend who listens even when the same story is told with little variation. Often, people work through grief and trauma by telling their stories over and over. Unless you are asked for your advice, don’t offer it. Frequently, those who are grieving really wish others would just listen. It’s your understanding—not your advice—they really want.
AVOID JUDGMENT. Your friend’s life has changed in a profound way. You may wish he or she would move on, but you can’t speed the process. Let your friend heal at the pace that feels right for them. Not helpful: saying “You should cry” or “It’s time to move on.”
Carrie Campbell, Sunset Contributor