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Last Updated Thursday April 26 2018 09:26 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | How to comfort a grieving person

Nirmala  Ferrao
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"It was God's will."

"I know exactly how you feel."

"Everything happens for a reason."

"You'll get married again one day."

"At least you have your other children."

"She was lucky to have lived to such a ripe old age."

"You've got to pull yourself together and be strong."

People are well-meaning when they come to comfort a person who has lost a loved one. Yet, they all too often end up saying trite, tacky, even insensitive things. The reason this happens is that most people are uncomfortable about death, and they feel an awkwardness about what they should say and do. So, they take the easy way out – mouthing platitudes.

Here are examples of some of the hackneyed lines that have virtually become a part of the colloquial lexicon of grief, and why they are inappropriate.

I know how you feel. No, really, you don't. Although people in grief share many of the same kind of feelings, everyone's grief is personalized and unique. None of us can know exactly how another person is feeling. Parents who have lost a child might want to scream, "No, you don't know how we feel. You are not Priya's mother and father!" Even if you have suffered a similar tragedy, you have not lost this particular child in this particular way. Nor did you have the same nuances of bonding or the same shared history.

Everything happens for the best. It is hardly helpful for a person whose world has just been turned upside down to be told that losing her loved one is the best thing that could have happened to her. Ask yourself exactly what you mean to convey when you say that. What is so good about someone's parent, child, sibling or spouse being taken from them?

Also read: Heal Thy Self | The art of forgiveness

Heal Thy Self | Here's how to deal with a control freak

Heal Thy Self | How to ensure your unborn baby's mental health

It was God's will. Even if a person's loved one was suffering, these words, no matter how benign they sound, can be painful to hear. Also, you may not know the person's beliefs and how statements of faith may impact him. An atheist, for example, would be rubbed the wrong way by this attribution to a divine entity he does not even believe in.

Your child is in a better place now. For a mother and father, there is no better place for their child than on this earth, in their arms, in their hearts, and in their home.

Saying their child is in a better place insinuates that they should somehow be grateful or even happy about their loss.

You're still young, you can have more children. This is so often said to young parents who have lost a baby. Far from being comforting, it is crass because it doesn't honour the fact that every child is unique and irreplaceable. We wouldn't dream of saying to a child who'd lost his mother, "It's okay, you'll get another mummy," yet people will mindlessly tell parents who've lost a baby that they "can have another".

It's okay, don't cry, daddy will get you another dog. This pacifier is in the same vein as the previous one, and is callous for the same reason. Losing a beloved pet can cause as much pain as losing a family member – which is not difficult to understand when you realize that the love, loyalty and companionship of a pet come with no strings attached. Yes, you can always get another pet, but that new pet cannot "replace" the one you have lost.


This was a very selfish thing for him to do. This kind of gratis comment is often proffered to the family of a person who has committed suicide. Social media have added their own warped veneer to this by providing a platform for public pontificating, especially when a celebrity is involved. In one of the more recent cases, following the alleged suicide of TV actress Pratyusha Banerjee, Hema Malini had written, in two irresponsible tweets:

"All these senseless suicides which achieve nothg! Life is God's gift for us to live not for us to take at will. We have no right to do that...One must learn to overcome all odds & emerge successful, not succumb under pressure & give up easily. The world admires a fighter not a loser."

From where did all these judgmental inferences come? Does Ms Malini know what a person who wants to kill herself or himself feels like? A huge body of research has painted a confusing picture of the suicidal mind. What we do know is that most suicides are driven by a flash flood of strong emotions, in which the process of lucid and rational thinking has been abandoned. A person who wants to kill himself occupies a dark psychological space that those who have not been there cannot even begin to imagine. So, to deliver ill-considered comments from a pedestal serves no purpose, least of all in bringing solace to the grieving family. To compound the maelstrom of their emotions by castigating their loved one as being selfish is nothing short of being unkind.

So, what should you say and do?

Some people believe that words are not necessary. Just show up and shut up is their motto. But your words are important, too. If sympathizers say nothing, that can make the bereaved person feel isolated and alone.

You don't have to say much. The kindest words are the simplest. Even a murmured, "My sympathies" or "I am so sorry about your loss" is adequate, especially if it is accompanied by a "reaching out" gesture -- a hug, an arm around the shoulder, a squeeze of the hand.

When the last rites are over

The first three months following a loss are deemed by grief counsellors to be the most critical. A sudden change in reality occurs when someone dies. Even if the death was expected, there can still be disbelief that the person is actually gone. There may be a sense of being distant or paralyzed – which is actually a way of protecting oneself from being overwhelmed.

Sometimes, relatives and friends hold themselves at arm's length during this period, believing they should not intrude upon the privacy of the bereaved. It is true that some grieving persons might seem to want to shut themselves away from the world. But recognize that, in most cases, they are going through a phase. Even if your calls are not picked up or your email messages go unanswered, do make discreet attempts to keep in touch. What the bereaved person needs most at this stage is to know that s(he) is being thought of, and that people care.


You don't need to say much – or anything. It is probably children who know by instinct how to comfort someone who is sad without even saying a word. Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old child whose neighbour, an elderly gentleman, had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into his garden, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked what he had said to their neighbour, the little boy said, "Nothing, I just helped him to cry."

You don't have to say anything to show that you understand the bereaved person's pain. Your presence and your willingness to listen and acknowledge their grief are the most precious gifts you can offer.

Don't try to rush the pace of healing. Recovery takes time, and people process grief differently. There is no order or schedule to it. It may take a few weeks or a couple of years. Once again, with the best of intentions, well-wishers may urge the grieving person: "You need to move on". But, in the initial period of grieving, being told to "move on" can seem like you're saying it's time they started forgetting their loss and their loved one.

Take the initiative. The grieving person may be too distraught to get down to the many practical matters that may need attending to. Discreetly explore what you can do to help out. For instance, a married woman who was financially dependent on her late spouse may have to become financially educated. You might be able to help by putting her in touch with a good financial advisor.

Help them keep alive the memory of their loved one. A bereaved family often derives strength and solace from happy memories of their loved one shared by their friends and relatives. This kind of sharing tells them not only that people care, but that their loved one had affected the lives of so many others in meaningful ways. Facebook offers bereaved families a way of preserving these memories in the form of texted messages, photographs and videos sent in by those who had known the person who has died. Collated on to his or her own Facebook page, they constitute an enduring album of precious mementoes.

When grief remains unresolved…
Though loss can be very painful, most people find that, with support from other relatives and friends and their own emotional resources, they gradually learn to live with their loss.

However, if someone seems to be struggling to manage their life after even a prolonged period, consider suggesting they join a support group for the bereaved, or – even better – that they seek professional help.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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