Talking with Someone Who’s Grieving

13 08 2007

by Kelsey Hough

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Few things make us more uncomfortable than words like “grief,” “loss,” and “death,” so when it comes to dealing with loved ones who are grieving, we don’t know what to do, say, or how to act, and sometimes this ignorance can do horrendous damage to someone already in pain.

While making small talk with some acquaintances, one of the young men in the group, James, tried to mention how his mother is dying, how greatly it’s affecting his entire family, and how hard the stress level and grief has been on him lately.  His friends — who he’s known for several years — suddenly became very awkward and completely tongue-tied.  They began to squirm around in their chairs and franticly glanced at each other as if they were looking for help.

Feeling Uncomfortable

I’m also losing a parent right now, my dad has a fatal illness, and I’m slowly watching him slip away.  I know the heartache, but I don’t have any answers, no cure for the pain. In fact, I hardly even knew James, but I asked questions about how his mom was doing, how his family was holding up, and most importantly, how he was doing.

His friends continued looking around uncomfortably, and when there was the first break in the conversation, one of them jumped in and changed the subject to something more upbeat. Then, in order to avoid further discomfort, they dominated the entire conversation; a regular “one man band.”  They didn’t want to hear about the heavier things James is currently living with, so they avoided having to listen by not giving him the opportunity to talk about it.

Their friend wanted to talk about the hardest thing in his life, and they responded by changing the subject and dominating the conversation because it made them uncomfortable to talk about grief and death. But I’m sure it doesn’t make James feel comfortable to live with the reality his mother is dying.

Just Listen

Some people – even friends — never ask me how my dad is doing, or how I’m coping with things, even though they know what’s happening and they see me on a regular basis.  Maybe people think they’d be reminding me of my pain by mentioning it, but I haven’t forgotten my dad’s dying.  Even if it’s not living in the forefronts of my thoughts at every moment, the knowledge and reality of it is always there.  They don’t ask for fear of reminding me, but since they don’t ask I assume they’re the ones who’ve forgotten.

“I don’t know what to do,” I hear people say when someone they know is grieving. Well, I’ll tell you, take a deep breath, deal with the fact it’s not your favorite subject of conversation, and listen. You’re right, you can’t change the situation, you can’t make it all better, but they know that even better than you do.   Sometimes, they just need to talk, and they need to know you haven’t forgotten.



8 responses

13 08 2007

i think you’ve made some wise and thoughtful suggestions. You’re right. Many people don’t know what to say or how to help. What can they say to help? What if they say the wrong thing?

Listening is so important. i think that that is hard for some of us to believe.

Thank you for posting this. Many, i’m sure, will find it helpful. My prayers are with you and your family, your Dad.

14 08 2007
Kelsey Hough

Hey, chughes,

Thank you for stopping by my new blog, and for taking the time to comment.

I find myself wondering “What can I say?” and “What if I say the wrong thing?” whenever I know someone who’s currently going through something difficult. It can be such a helpless feeling to know you can’t change anyhting, but to wish so much that you could. Listening can seem so simple that I find myself thinking how there’s got to be a way I could “really” help. I think some of the most helpful people in my own life, though, have been the ones who took the time to show they care by listening, asking questions and then remembering what was talked about the next time I see them.

Thank you for your prayers.


18 08 2007

Thanks for that. You make good points.

21 08 2007
Eric Novak

I always find it extremely hard to talk about personal loss. What words of comfort are there in context to a person losing a loved one? I suppose that the only thing to really say is “I’m sorry,” and then to just listen.

I don’t know how some people can be as callous as to say “God needed another flower for his garden,” when someone has lost a child.

Pain is a really hard subject to talk about.

I’m sure you have watched Shadowlands about the life of C.S. Lewis, it is a very good movie with a lot of depth. Plus its about C.S. Lewis, so how can you go wrong?

Anyway, at the end of the movie Jack says “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal. ”

His point is, that without pain we would not know what happiness is. Without the storms of life, there would be peace.

RYC: I still am working on getting Passion and Purity I really want to read it, but I haven’t had the chance to buy it yet.

I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of The Four Loves I am a really big C.S. Lewis fan. I will definitely check that out.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Eric Novak

21 08 2007
Kelsey Hough

Hey, Eric,

You’re right, I think one of the only things someone can do when talking with someone who’s grieving is to say they’re sorry and listen attentively, and then later remember what was talked about. But there are some very practical things people often don’t think about that can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

Personally, I think the key – or at least one of them — to being truly supportive is to be a good listener who’s also proactive. It’s the people who rather than telling you to feel free to call them asking you when the best time to call would be and then actually follow through. And the ones who fined out what your favorite foods are and bringing bring a meal just because they care that have been the biggest blessing in my own life. It takes a lot more work on the part of the friend, but just having someone tangibly show they’re there for you and they care can be a tremendous blessing to someone in pain.

~Kelsey Hough

21 08 2007

Thanks for your post Talking About Grief. All so true. I lost my 20-year-old son 12 weeks ago, and my return to work was/is horrendous. Not just because people don’t know what to say or how to listen, but because some people actually treat me as though I’m “damaged goods” – as though they’re thinking “How could she possibly have anything to offer now? No one can live through that, and have any ability to make good judgment calls.” That’s how it feels. I’ve been talked to as though I’m in kindergarten, as though I have lost all of my technical skills, and as though I couldn’t offer help if needed. And, yet, this is the one place I get a few minutes at a time, to NOT obsess over what happened to my son. Wow, our culture sure has no clue about grief, and it’s time to change that. Keep writing for all of us. Thanks,

21 08 2007
Kelsey Hough


I’m so sorry to hear about the recent loss of your twenty-year-old son, and I’m sorry your coworkers have been so horribly unhelpful. In movies when someone says the situation can’t possibly get any worse it rains, but I think in life that’s when someone says or does something stupid and hurtful.

It’s true, our culture has absolutely no clue about grief, and because it’s an awkward subject, people generally don’t try to learn more about how to effectively interact with someone who’s grieving. It doesn’t hurt them any, but boy does it hurt anyone who’s grieving who happens to run into them.


19 11 2008

I just lost my younger brother (18) suddenly in an accident. Although I don’t remember much of what happened the two months following, i do remember some things that others should take caution to. First- after the loss there iss not really one thing a person could ever say to make you feel better. It is something you personally have to deal with to ever get better. Also, don’t be skiddish to talk about memories of that person. Just because they are no longer here on earth does not mean we want them forgotten. I think what helped the most was having my brothers friends over and telling stories about him that always got a laugh from the croud. Laughing is the best cure in that situation. You never forget that person, cause when they left our world they took a piece of all they knew with them. The most important thing, don’t ever make someone feel that it is a burdance to hear about the one they loss, sound interested. Cause even though you maybe over it and don’t want to hear it, it is quite obvious that they are not over it yet. I also found it difficult to answer someone when they ask how you are doing. to me it is obvious that they are not doing good. Don’t just ask if there is ANYTHINg they could do to help. Offer something specific, like running the bills for them, picking up stuff from the store, or babysitting. We all could use help with everything, i founfd it easier to ask those who offered specific help.

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