Grief is part of life. Someone special dies — someone’s father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter. A family, a lifetime of memories, and a lot of pain are left behind. For the survivors, the pain is just beginning. Working through that pain and sadness often is a long, grueling process called mourning or grieving.
Almost everyone worries about what to say to a survivor. You don’t want to hurt his/her feelings or upset him/her. More important than knowing what to say, however, is knowing how to listen.
In a study of 125 grieving persons in Tampa, psychologist Catherine M. Sanders asked participants what was most important in helping them through their grief. They overwhelmingly answered, “Friends, family, neighbors — anyone who would take the time to listen.”
Listening is probably the single most important thing you can do for someone who is grieving. This means active listening, or listening to understand and feel what another person is feeling. Active listening involves eye contact, feeling the grieving person’s feelings, and, in some instances, naming these feelings.
How do you let someone know that you are willing and ready to listen? First, consider offering your friend a safe place to talk. You might suggest going for a walk or out for coffee. Demonstrate your concern for privacy by taking the phone off the hook, or going to a separate room and closing the door. Offering food and drink — such as a cup of tea, a meal, or a slice of pie or cookies — foster a caring and relaxing atmosphere. These actions combined symbolize care in a very concrete way. They are messages of involvement that begin to build rapport.
Next, adopt a “posture of involvement.” Gerald Egan, in his book
Impersonal Living, suggests taking the S-O-L-E-R position.
- S-Face the person Squarely
- O-Adopt an Open posture
- L–Lean toward the other
- E-Maintain good Eye contact
- R-Be relatively Relaxed
An open posture means to hold yourself in such a way that your interest in what the person is saying shows. An open posture says, “I’m listening.”
Touching may also be important when establishing rapport. You might shake hands or simply reach out and touch the person on the arm. This contact conveys your warmth and establishes a bond between you and the other person.
It’s helpful to allow a survivor to “tell the story” about how his/her loved one died. At first, a survivor will recount the minute details, but with each re-telling, the story typically gets shorter and becomes part of acknowledging and accepting the reality of the death.
If the subject of death makes you uncomfortable, understand that most people feel similarly. On the other side, however, the survivor has a real need to talk. Don’t worry about being conversational. It is simply more important to be there and listen.