How to Make a Person Grieve Forever
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Des Moines, Washington
Did you ever wonder what advice would come from a person who believes he or she knows what the bereavement process is all about—but doesn’t really have a clue? I want to take you through an imaginary advice column. As you read the “advice” for the bereaved person, ask yourself, “Do I know anyone like this? If so, what can I do to help save the world from such a know-it-all?”
Have you ever had the experience of seeing someone grieve a death? And then they go on and on? I mean, it’s hard enough watching someone cry over a death, but as the weeks and months turn into years, this person is still angry, still guilty, still upset, still sad and depressed over the death. And, at the rate they are going, you are concerned that it would go on for decades. You imagine this person becoming a lifetime griever. I know it hurts a lot when a loved one dies, but wouldn’t you think that grief has a limit? Their loved one is gone. That’s it. What are they going to do? They can’t bring them back. So they cry. But, after a time, the tears need to dry up and they need to get on with life. They may not like it, but that’s how it goes. I know it sounds harsh, but after a while they just need to get over it and move on.
Here they are, my 19 excellent suggestions for helping a person quickly get over their grief:
1. Say, “Don’t cry.”
You’re standing there talking to him or her and suddenly you see the look on the face and just know the tears are about to begin. Quick, pull out a tissue and say, “Don’t cry. It’ll be OK. Just be strong.”
2. Helpful sayings
There are a number of sayings that should help the grieving person feel better quickly. Here are a few that should work: “It’s God’s will.” “Your family needs you to be strong.” “Tomorrow is another day.” “You’ll get over it.” And my favorite, “That’s the way life goes.”
3. Helpful words
Using any of the following words in a sentence should bring you good results:
“It’s time to bring closure to this.” “You must accept this.” “With time you will recover.”
4. Don’t bring up the name of the person who died
Bringing up the name of a dead person only serves to remind survivors of what they lost. Don’t be cruel.
5. Don’t ever say die or died.
Instead say, “Passed on.” Or “No longer with us.” These are gentler words that don’t carry the harshness of dead.
6. Change the subject.
As soon as the person brings up the death or their grief, say, “Oh really? Did you hear what happened on the news today?” Talking about grief just puts them deeper into their hole of self-pity. Look at your subject-changing as a favor to them.
7. Point out that other people have it worse.
Indeed, whatever loss this person has experienced there are many people out there who have it worse. Bring up recent tragedies around the world and say something like, “See, you should be happy that your life hasn’t been that bad.”
8. Distract—tell a joke.
Shifting the topic from grief, depression, and loss helps people forget. While humor isn’t always the best way to accomplish this, there are some good ‘distracting jokes’ such as, “Have you heard the one about the funeral director who….?”
9. Avoid in public.
If you see the bereaved person in the grocery store, it’s probably best to avoid the encounter. You don’t want to get into an upsetting conversation. So, if you are pushing your cart down an aisle and happen to see the person in the next aisle, simply head the other way and get through the checkout line. Remind yourself that you are doing the bereaved person a favor. No one wants to grieve in public.
10. Don’t call on the anniversary date.
The one- or two- or five-year date (or any other relevant date) is a time the person needs to be alone. In fact, it’s often the case that, after a couple years that the person has forgotten the date anyway. Whatever the case, calling is just another act on your part that will make it worse.
11. Offer your religious strength.
Of course we all have our own religious beliefs. But since a death can challenge a person’s religious views, it may be helpful for you to offer your spiritual perspective by offering, “If only you believed as I did, you wouldn’t feel so bad.”
12. Interrupt their “story.”
Even though it’s impolite to interrupt people, this is a special case in which you are sparing the person their negative feelings. In speaking with a person who begins to tell the story of the death, wait for them to take a breath and jump in saying something—anything—to change the subject to something “lighter.” Refer to #6 Changing the Subject.
13. Question group support.
Some people actually join groups of people, who, like themselves, have experienced a death. Would you believe that there are support groups for parents whose children have died? For widows? For people whose relative or friend died from suicide? From homicide? Can you imagine what the group meetings must be like? People sitting around talking, crying, wailing about the death. How helpful can that be to anyone? If this person is considering joining such a group, do him or her a favor by questioning their motives and by discouraging such a decision. If the person insists, you can say, “It’s your life—but what kind of life is it to be with a bunch of people who are going through much of the same stuff?”
14. Warn them about the “Grief Industry.”
As in every tragedy, there are vultures out there who prey on the weak. They come in the form of “do-gooders” who claim to help the bereaved by offering books, magazine articles (I’ve heard Grief Digest is the worst of the bunch), workshops, conferences, and so-called counseling. You can help protect this person by warning that the grief industry exists for one reason—the reason that drives all of us: money. In addition, these “experts” put out misinformation such as “talk about your grief,” “you never really get back to normal after a significant death,” “support groups can be helpful” and other such garbage.
15. Pick a date to draw a line and say, “This has gone on long enough.”
Sometimes this person just needs someone to stand up to their ongoing “grief” and say, “Enough.” And you are just the person for the job. While the person may upset at you now, he or she will thank you someday—just wait.
16. Give them advice:
As you did in #15, give this person the benefit of your wisdom. Helpful statements are:
It’s been a few weeks, time to pack up the belongings.
It’s been a few months. It’s time to move on.
It’s been six months, put away the pictures.
It’s time to say good-bye to the old life and hello to the new one.
17. Get them involved in life again.
This suggestion is related to #8 Distractions. You can speed up the recovery process by keeping the person busy. Movies, dinners, hobbies, sports events, television, and reading are all effective detractors. Think of the last time you saw a good sitcom and you’ll know what I mean. In addition, if you work with this person, you can get them involved in life again by adding more work-related responsibilities. The person will be so busy he or she will not have time to grieve—and that’s a good thing.
18. Empathize with them by saying, “I know just how you feel.”
Even if your loss is not the same, you can always find some element of similarity. If a woman’s husband dies, well—you’ve lost a good friend who moved away. If a man’s sister died in an auto accident, you can bring up the time your dog almost got hit —boy was that scary. Whatever the story you can always find some connection to your life story and proudly say, “Yes, I understand. Something similar happened to me.”
19. Everything happens for a Reason
Remind the person that, since everything happens for a reason, the death of their loved one was supposed to happen and someday they will accept and find meaning in this tragedy.
Let’s get real now. So, there it is: 19 ways to take a bereaved person whose life has already been devastated and make it worse. If you found yourself chuckling at any of these examples, remember that there are people out there—well-meaning people—who retain some of these beliefs. Your job is to go out there and continue to speak up for bereaved people; or if you are a bereaved person, take whatever energy you have left to educate those who claim to help. While it may not directly help you, the words you speak may help those who come after you. And, even though we don’t like to think about it, there are thousands of people who will experience a significant death this year alone. You can help by speaking up. The question is: Will you?
Published in Grief Digest, Jan 2008.