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How to Respond to Hearing About a Death

by Peg Ehlen

When you hear about someone's death, you may say to the bereaved, "I know how you must feel." While intended to convey empathy, your words may communicate a different message. The mourner may resent your presumption or feel that you underestimate the depth of his grief. People often respond inappropriately to another's loss because they feel helpless and uncomfortable with expressions of grief, explains Camille Wortman, professor of psychology at Stony Brook University. To help the bereaved, friends and family need to rise above their personal discomfort.

Encourage the bereaved to express their feelings. It is important to listen while withholding judgment, rather than claiming to know how the mourner feels, emphasizes Wortman. Rather than saying, "Be strong," supporters should allow mourners to grieve. Hiding pain does not remove it, as Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler explain in their book "On Grief and Grieving." Mourners need to go through the grieving process, feeling free to communicate their sorrow. If you also mourn this loss, allow yourself the same license.

Respond with a hug when appropriate. A simple squeeze or hug often conveys empathy as effectively as words. Although hugs may benefit the grieving, the wrong words, such as "Perhaps you can have another baby," can harm by diminishing the importance of a loss.

Simply be there. When mourners have a high level of distress, many people automatically avoid them and their suffering, notes Wortman. However, you cannot help a mourner through avoidance. If the grieving person repeats a story about the loved one's death, say nothing and allow the repetition, instead of insisting, "You already mentioned that." Rather than providing distractions or trying to "cheer" them, commiserate with the bereaved, recommends psychotherapist Jeremy Weinstein in his book "Working with Loss, Death and Bereavement."

Provide specifics when you offer help. Rather than vaguely saying, "Call me if you need anything," provide a concrete course of action. For example, state that (with permission) you plan to deliver a dinner on Thursday at 5:00 p.m. and hope to visit at that time. A bereaved person often lacks the energy to make plans or hesitates to call for help, but your specific plan may provide needed structure. On the other hand, don't give superfluous advice, such as "Now would be a good time to buy a pet."

Follow up. Although your initial response provides essential support, the mourner may need you even more after the funeral. Regularly calling or visiting, particularly on weekends or major holidays, provides care at critical times. A simple approach involving listening, not advising, may allow the bereaved to heal.

Suggest, however, that the mourner see a specialist if healing does not gradually take place. A mental health professional can make a diagnosis of prolonged grief only after six months following a death if the bereaved remains unengaged in life and continues to experience extreme pain, explains clinical psychologist William Worden in "Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy."

Warning

  • Supportive friends should respond in a culturally appropriate manner, warns Weinstein, explaining that expressing sorrow for someone's loss typically focuses on empathy. At a Jewish funeral, however, wishing the mourner a long life would emphasize the importance of continuing to live.

References

About the Author

With dual degrees in English and learning disabilities, Peg Ehlen has been a full-time English professor most of her life. In addition, she has directed disability services for post-secondary students. Her publications reflect her experience in these fields and her knowledge of psychology, parenting and juvenile diabetes.

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