Good Grief: What not to say.

thumperPossibly one of the more difficult tasks that we have as a member of society is dealing with grief. I believe that most people don’t know what to say to someone who has experienced loss and often they will say things that later on they either regret or wish they had said different.

Anita and I have a friend who, we learned after treatment was completed, had gone through breast cancer diagnoses and treatment with a positive outcome. When we contacted her, we commented to her that we didn’t know that she had breast cancer she stated something like “I told my immediate family that I did not want anyone outside of the family to know. I knew what I had to do to deal with it and honestly did not want to hear everyone else’s story.” She went on to explain that, commonly, her experience has been that when someone heard of a cancer diagnosis they would talk about their own personal fears or the tragedy of dealing with friends or family who had not survived. Something like “I am so sorry to hear about your cancer I lost my aunt (uncle, grandma, grandpa, best friend etc.) and it was horrible. They suffered for so long and the chemo was terrible, they lost all their hair…” You get the picture. It’s certainly not the sort of uplifting message that supports a positive mindset.

When someone dies, well-meaning people may say things like “you just never get over a loss like that” or “I still cry every day and miss my __________.” Again the attempt to extend support or condolences falls terribly short of anything resembling helpfulness. I have actually heard a young grieving mother being told “you’re still young, you can have more children.”

Sometimes the loss is one of function. When a woman discovers that she may not be able to conceive or there is a diagnosis of a chronic condition there is no real benefit in being told “you can always adopt” or again a reminder that someone else has the same chronic condition and the outcome is debilitating or tragic. I have heard veterans state that after losing a limb in combat someone has said “Isn’t it wonderful what they can do with prosthetics these days?” or “that’s really bad but I heard of someone who lost their _______ and they are really having problems adjusting.”

All of these things are examples of the message being sent that grief is something that will always be with you and you will never feel better. While the grief may always be with you to some degree, it is a sad and inaccurate diagnosis that you will never feel better. In reality there are some things that a person really “never does get over” which is not even close to the goal of “learning to deal with the loss.”

I want to remind everyone that grief is a process and it is reasonable to expect a positive outcome. To a large degree the outcome of the grieving process is similar to the outcome of other emotional processes and is largely dependent upon expectation and choice. If a person expects that they will never “get over it” then they are continually giving the brain that information and their brain will take that information to form conclusions. If on the other hand the message that the individual gives their brain is “this is difficult but I know that eventually I am going to feel better” then the brain will take that information to form conclusions.

What you think is your choice. I read a research article about a group of women who had been sexually assaulted and had the common complaint of not being able to stop thinking about it. In the article the writer recounted how they had gathered the group and discussed their perceived inability to stop thinking about the incident. When each member of the group was heavily involved in their recollection the writer jumped up, clapped their hands together and yelled “stop”. The members of the group were predictably startled and when asked what they were thinking about the group members stated things in the realm of “you’re an idiot” or “you about scared me to death”. At that point the group leader stated “see, you can quit thinking about the incident! Now we need to learn techniques to help you control stopping the thoughts.”

There are a number of methods to approach stop-thought and refocusing. The point of this article is not to approach treatment but rather to show that recovery is probable and can be anticipated. To this end I would like to encourage people to stop using negative responses to individuals who are grieving and try some new things.

One of the beneficial things that can be said is “I am sorry to hear about your loss.” Even vague attempts at support such as “if there’s anything you need, call me” from an individual, who has little relationship with the person grieving, can add to feelings of loneliness and loss. In the early stages of grieving it may be quite difficult to even think of anything you need other than to feel better. Probably the most important and beneficial method to deal with someone grieving is to ‘just be there ‘. It may be helpful to remember the words of Thumper the Rabbit in the movie, Bambi, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.”

I would like to encourage people to openly dialogue with friends and support systems and begin to discuss grieving. Two things that virtually all of us will share in our lifetimes is being born and dying. In our culture birth has become a medical emergency and death is a tragedy.

It would probably be extremely beneficial, and therapeutic, to gather together and discuss grief and loss. It could be a place to process your own personal grief and to discuss, in a more neutral environment, things that were found to be helpful and not helpful.

In closing, remember that life is built on choices. Choose to prepare to deal with grief and choose to have a positive outcome to your grieving.