The Language of Loss. What Do You Say to Someone Who Has Lost a loved One?
Posted by Bob Aronson
It is an unfortunate fact of life that those of us in the transplant community have not only faced death but seen many of our friends pass on while waiting for organs. Like you, we struggle with what to say.
This post, like many we publish has applications everywhere whether you are a transplant patient or not because we all find ourselves in situations where we are expected to offer words of comfort to grieving friends or family. Most of us struggle with finding the right words. Knowing “The right thing to say” doesn’t seem to come naturally. Guest blogger Dr. Priscilla Diffie-Couch offers excellent advice in this riveting piece about how your words affect someone in grieving.
Priscilla and I are not only cousins by marriage but professional cousins as well. Both of us had careers in communication. I cannot speak for her, but in my 50 plus years in that business I learned more than I taught. I won’t list all my many “Aha” moments because this post is not about me, I will only mention the two that are particularly germane to this topic.
The first is that most of us take communication for granted. We expect that the audience whether one or many will clearly understand and accept our words. What we fail to realize is that communication is more than words. You begin to communicate the moment you walk into a room – before you utter a single word. The way you walk, your facial expression, body language, grooming and attire all contribute to your communication effort. Communication has as many facets as a well cut precious gem stone.
The second important lesson I learned is that while what you say is very important and you should carefully choose your words, most people will not remember the exact language you used. What they will remember is how you made them feel.
What Priscilla has written here is brilliant. It is advice given by someone who is not only a communications expert but who has experienced tragic loss first hand. She has been on the receiving end of the language of loss and has also offered it. Please read and re-read what she has written and then share it with anyone you think might be helped by these incredible words of wisdom.
THE LANGUAGE OF LOSS
By Dr. Priscilla Diffie-Couch
(I wrote these words in 1980 but because they are based on timeless communication principles they still apply. I would not change a word.)
“Your mother was killed in a car wreck.” More than a year and a half has passed since this devastating tragedy and yet these words still seem intended for someone else, not me. I cannot totally accept the finality of the pronouncement of these painful words. Yet they introduced events that have completely reshaped my thinking.
Of the lessons of life and death I have learned in these last eighteen months, the one I have yet to discuss in professional circles is the role our language plays in reinforcing, re-establishing and even reducing relationships in times of grief.
Though one of the two areas of focus in my doctoral training was interpersonal communication, I am now quite sure I have always fallen short in conveying appropriate messages to people who have lost loved ones. Not too long ago a friend confided that he had not inquired about a neighbor’s critically ill mother. He feared arousing emotional responses she would not be able to handle, he explained. I suspect he might admit under further probing that a greater fear was that he might not be able to handle her responses. Too often I recall my own feelings of inadequacy in similar circumstances. What if she began to cry? Became angry? Smothered me with too many feelings? Lapsed into silence? Expected me to understand? Denied that I could understand?
Such imagined responses are enough to prevent many of us from fully extending our condolences or sharing sincere words of sympathy. But intense discussions and extended research since my mother’s death persuade me that doing so is always worth risk.
As in any difficult communication situation, guidelines can be helpful. As you examine these guidelines, remember that they are based on sound general communication principles. Some will seem self-evident at first glance. But if you look more closely, you may discover something that will shake your confidence in having done and said “the right things” instinctively.
For example, there is a strong temptation when confronted with difficult communication situations to resort to easy, familiar phrases. How simple it is to say to someone who has suffered loss, “You’ll get over it in time.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Keep your chin up.” “Life goes on.” “You’ve got to face it.” “Death is just a part of life.” “Don’t cry.” “She’s happy now.”
Even as I write them, these safe, comfortable phrases cause me to shudder—as they did during my own loss. I wasn’t quite sure why at the time. I have come to realize that such clichés can increase rather than assuage anxiety. Many of them tend to reinforce the sense of loss. Yet psychologists remind us that it is very natural for us to experience “denial.” I did. I was not ready to accept the void. I filled it continuously with images of my mom—laughing, smiling, thinking, talking, walking, painting, etc., etc. These clichés asked me to push my mom—my best friend, the central force, the nucleus, the heart of our family—into the recesses of the mind she had so deeply touched and so strongly influenced.
So I resentfully resisted such repeated phrases as “Time is all it will take.” To do what, I wanted to scream. To erase my beloved mom from my mind and memory? To remove her completely from our lives? To relegate her spirit to some misty distant role, to be called up only in moments of family reminiscing?
Such common clichés carry the unintended message that you have not
suffered any special loss—yours is not the only mother who ever died. Such reminders can seem cold and cruel. They no more relieve suffering than any other recitation would—highway death statistics, for example. As I look back, I am very sure that these clichés failed foremost because they did not provide the personal acknowledgement that something specifically and incomparably tragic had happened in my life. Clichés cannot capture the uniqueness of my special relationship with a rare person whose spirit I shared in a way peculiar to the two of us. Clichés cannot capture the particular adjustments required continuously throughout the rest of my life without her. Clichés ignore the reality that her particular love can never be replaced, that her influence has now been permanently diminished in my life. Clichés lie. Life does not go on. Not as it was before.
I could not then and I cannot now reduce the enormity of this event in my life to the casual unconcern implicit in a cliché. So consider carefully the implications of those easy, familiar phrases before you say, “You’ll get over it.” Get over what? If you mean, “You’re in deep pain now. I hope it will become easier to bear,” then say that. Treat the loss as unique in the language you choose, no matter how much effort that takes.
Possibly an even greater misconception guiding people in response to another’s loss is that the less mention made of the deceased the less suffering will be imposed. The opposite is more likely to occur. The unstated message in such silence is often interpreted as indifference toward or disregard for the deceased. Did she really make so little impression on you in life that you haven’t a single kind word for her after her death?
Even if you didn’t know the deceased personally, if you visit, you must be there because you personally know the bereaved. If so, you can easily sincerely observe, “It’s obvious how close you felt to her. She must have been very special” or “From all you’ve said, I know she was truly a warm and loving person,” or “I can see so many of the influences you have mentioned in your own life.” Such verbalized reassurances are desperately-needed reminders that her life was not a waste. They acknowledge not only her worth but also the depth and genuineness of the grief.
A few weeks after my mother’s death, as I was going through her memorabilia, I was surprised to find a lengthy letter I had written her some years before. In it I had detailed all the truly remarkable qualities of her vibrant sister who’d died unexpectedly, much too young. My mom was not a pack rat, yet she had kept this letter. She placed special value on the words I had written because they applied uniquely to her sister.
How cherished are those easily-remembered personal comments about Mom the day of her funeral. “She was always so happy.” “She was quite a lady.” “There was no one like LaVerna.” How touched we all were by a poem composed by a neighbor who lost her own mother not many years before.
The second guideline should now be clear: don’t be deceived into believing that all-too-common cliché that “silence is golden.” Don’t be deceived into thinking that the words you didn’t say will never come back to haunt you. They can. I am still dismayed by words that were never spoken, by friends who didn’t get in touch, by notes and flowers never sent.
Perhaps you’re thinking now—as I once did—that my clumsy words would just increase the pain already felt by those suffering. None of us has that kind of power. I know that now. The event itself is paramount. It is the cause of the pain. Whatever you say—if it is a personalized expression of your caring—will be welcomed, even if it does not visibly alleviate the pain.
In fact, it is often the totally spontaneous reaction that carries the most powerful message. The day after my mom’s death, my brother walked into the woods behind Mom and Dad’s recently-realized dream home with his close friend, a man near forty. After a long moment of silence, through tears spilling down his face, this friend blurted out, “I don’t think I can stand this!” The intensity of such a profoundly-felt disclosure cannot be measured, but it left a marked impression on our family. It served—in a way that no cliché or continued silence could—as a permanent weld in an already warm relationship. Certainly, personal comments can evoke a fresh flow of tears, but not because they cause additional pain. Tears are evidence that the hurt exists and an acknowledgement of your willingness to share it.
Of course, there are risks. Who among us is wise enough to predict the exact responses our words are likely to evoke? Sensitive communicators calculate the risks, think before they speak, and stand ever ready to adapt with flexibility. This all takes more effort than it does to remain silent. And rest assured that sincere, carefully-considered words of comfort will never be as negative as total, continued silence.
At this point I would be remiss to ignore the role of nonverbal communication in expressing the deepest of emotions. A hug, a touch, a meeting of eyes can convey your strongest feelings with unmatched intensity. But such
expressions—as deeply as they may temporarily touch someone—will not suffice in a sustained relationship any more than the wedding kiss will meet the needs of a lifetime. In a continuing relationship the words must eventually come.
Even after that condemnation of continued silence, I’d be tempted to opt for it over communication built solely on unacknowledged assumptions. Assumptions are dangerous in daily communication; they can be disastrous in times of crisis.
Consider some common assumptions expressed shortly after a death: “I know how you feel.” “I’m sure you’d rather be alone right now.” “Come on. It will do you good to be with the others.” “Go ahead. Talk about it. It’ll help.” “Don’t talk about it right now. It will only make you feel worse.” “This is the worst part. Tomorrow will be better.” “You should view the body. It’s the easiest way to accept it.” “Im sorry I made you cry. I know you’d rather not discuss it right now.”
I wonder how many of you have been hurt by the kind of communication that followed assumptions somebody drew and then acted upon as if they were fact. There are still people who assume I would rather not talk about my mother. That assumption has caused a rift in one relationship I thought was close and has yet to be repaired. Such breaks in relationships are often caused by confusing assumption with fact. What is true for you may not be true for others. Your assumptions are likely to be inaccurate, inadequate, inappropriate or all of these.
While most of us can accept the warning against treating assumption as fact, some of us may feel a bit cocky about really knowing certain people in our lives. Do we? Who is it in your life that knows exactly what you are thinking or feeling at every moment? Your spouse of twenty years? How many arguments have started with that faulty assumption?
I have been told that this is a confusing concept. I seem to be advising against ever engaging in assumptions. That, of course, would be impossible. We cannot think, reason, or draw conclusions without engaging in assumptions. What I am cautioning about is acting on those assumptions as if they were fact and then communicating on this basis. Telling someone how you coped when your mother died may consist largely of factual reporting. Sharing means of coping can indeed by helpful. Telling someone she should cope in the same way, however, involves assumptions and can lead to complications and cause communication barriers to develop.
I remember sharing a letter with my dad from my cousin about her eventual acceptance of her mother’s death (my dad’s sister). Nowhere in her letter was any evidence of an assumption that we could find the same kind of acceptance. She reported what she had felt and experienced and offered it for our consideration. In that light, it was deeply appreciated.
If you sincerely care about the person in grief, then don’t assume. Simply ask, “Would you like to be alone right now?” Though persons in pain do not always know what they want, remember that you are even less certain. Your approach should be one of discovering or helping them to discover what their needs are and how you might fill them. One dear friend, though she had lost neither parent at the time, had an uncanny knack for adapting to my needs as we talked of my mother’s death. She could turn my tears into laughter and then join me when they started up again.
Such responsiveness demanded that my friend play many roles as a communicator, but she never attempted to be a mind-reader. She never assumed that she knew exactly what I was thinking or how I was feeling. She seemed to know that none of us—no matter how intuitive we are—can really step inside another’s mind or heart.
By now it should be obvious that artful listening is a must in communicating with someone submerged in sorrow. Some of what I say here will seem like common sense. Yet there are a surprising number of people who apparently need constant reminders of the traits of a good listener. Never will you be called upon to exhibit these traits more consistently and compassionately than when communicating with someone who has suffered a painful loss.
Listen with all the empathy you can command. Listen to the need for reassurance. Listen to the need to talk about the deceased, about the events that led to the death. Listen to the need to explore the universe, to make sense of what seems to be senseless. Listen to the need for temporary silence. Listen to the desire to have the tension broken through laughter, tears, change of subject. Listen to the anguish behind the anger. Listen to the need to retrace again and again the “why” that can never be explained. Listen with your ears, your eyes, your mind, your heart, your soul.
There is no magic formula for executing such delicate communication skills as those involved in fine-tuned listening. But I can recommend against behaviors that are likely to interfere with effective listening.
Avoid judgmental behaviors and unsolicited advice. What I am suggesting here may put people with deep religious convictions in a double bind. One the one hand, they feel compelled to clearly enunciate why true solace in the face of death is available only through one supreme source. At the same time they are advised not to impose controversial views on those in mental torment if they are to practice effective sensitive listening. Some common sense guidelines would seem to be: will what I say produce the desired effect? Will it produce unnecessary discomfort for those already suffering?
Couple these considerations with the following tested communication concept: No amount of sincerity will assure acceptance of your beliefs. Excessive enthusiasm for a cause is often counterproductive. People who argue too loudly and too long for a position can actually drive opponents further away. In daily social use the term “sermonizer” has taken on negative connotations. It suggests a desire to impose standards and opinions on others plus a refusal to listen to alternatives. A truly effective listener cannot hold unalterable opinions. The highly sensitive listener projects an attitude of inquiry and genuine desire to learn from others.
It is well to remember that not everyone shares your particular views. If the bereaved does not even accept the notion of a “God” or an afterlife, then this same person can hardly be expected to find comfort in the notion that God decided the deceased was no longer needed on earth or that it was her time to go or that she is now happy in “heaven.” Certainly, a religious card a Biblical reference, even a personally-composed prayer can be offered and may provide comfort if it is not accompanied with a sermon. However well-intentioned, it is not wise to risk adding to a grieving person’s distress.
Suppose you are a very concerned person but one who is a better talker than listener. Shouldn’t you rely on your natural skills in dealing with someone in grief? I offer this for consideration: It takes seconds to see in others what it takes a lifetime to see in oneself. People who value their ability to talk too often talk about themselves, their feelings, their needs, their interests, their job, their troubles. There is no such thing as a skillful communicator who talks well but listens poorly. If there is any chance this describes you, then the kindest thing you can do is send a sympathy card.
I still find it hard to understand why a well-meaning couple, long-time acquaintances of my mom, chose to impose an endless stream of inconsequential incidents from their lives on our family the day Mom died. They were totally oblivious to our obvious signs of discomfort. When they finally terminated an unnecessarily long visit, my dad was completely drained and visibly relieved as he closed the door behind them.
Even as I write this, I realize that those who need this message most are least likely to see that it applies to them. It should be noted that the presence of such ineffective communicators deepens our appreciation of those who are. What a special place I have in my heart for those who still ask, “How is your dad” and wait expectantly for my emotion laden reply. How dear are those who are compassionate enough to openly confront the emptiness and void, knowing it does not magically disappear in a few days or months. How warm I feel toward those rarely empathic listeners whose eyes still moisten in response to my occasional tears.
As you read through these suggestions, you may be thinking, “I’m really a deeply-caring person. I’ve sincerely tried to say and do the right things, but I still wasn’t very successful. Somehow, my relationship with that special person has changed. We are not as close as we were before this death.”
Such bewilderment is not uncommon. Despite the once open lines of communication, a crisis can cause a distance to develop. When a soul is shattered—as mine was—by such a destructive blow as my mother’s death, all other relationships are subject to some sort of splintering and must eventually be repaired.
My husband could not have been a more supportive communicator or a more sensitive listener. He cried with me and followed me with intense empathy through repeated prolonged discussions of Mom, our family, life, death, funerals, religion. But there were times when I couldn’t sufficiently explain and he couldn’t completely understand, my need to turn to or be with my dad, my sister, my brother. I couldn’t resist the force pulling me back into my original family-minus-one. I knew that no one outside that circle could completely comprehend or fully share my loss. I’m sure my loving husband was confused by my lapse into childhood language the night he called with that inconceivable, never-contemplated news. “Where is my daddy? I want my daddy!” I wailed after my screams had subsided into moans of agony. I had not called him “Daddy” since I was a child. But through this means and others I shut my husband out of that fairy-tale family who has struggled out of poverty, built a house together, worked side by side on a dairy farm—a family who lived, laughed, loved together…truly together.
My survival in those early months of mourning was primarily dependent on long tear-filled talks with my sister, my dad, my brother. We shared what communication experts call a “common frame of reference.” You can save yourself some unnecessary distress if you examine your expectations during crisis events in the lives of those you love. You may not be invited to share the same level of disclosure or feelings reserved for close family members. It may have little to do with your communication behaviors. You can avoid all the empty clichés; you can set aside all the faulty assumptions; you can show awareness that silence does not suffice; you can practice the most sensitive listening skills. And you may still end up feeling “shut out.” But if you deeply care, that is certain to be a temporary condition. I am fortunate to have an incomparable husband and devoted friends who considered our relationship worth preserving and continued to practice adaptive and perceptive communication skills that brought us so close in the beginning.
Don’t misunderstand. My family deeply appreciated all expressions of sympathy, however awkward or misguided. People are universally kind during times of grief. My focus here, however, has not been how to deal with or receive expressions of comfort. These guidelines are pointedly directed at all who are ever called upon to offer condolences.
My primary concern is to remind you—and myself—that this is no easy task. And though it is a topic rarely addressed, it should never be taken lightly. You will want to insure that others benefit by the best possible results that can come out of your good intentions. Don’t stop trying. Don’t stop caring. It is not too late to pick up the phone or a pen or appear in person with some special thought you somehow didn’t or couldn’t convey. No matter how many years have passed since the tragedy occurred, your words—like the miracle of memories—can warm the heart.
An award winning high school speech and English teacher, Priscilla Diffie-Couch went on to get her ED.D. from Oklahoma State University, where she taught speech followed by two years with the faculty of communication at the University of Tulsa. In her consulting business later in Dallas, she designed and conducted seminars in organizational and group communication.
An avid tennis player, she has spent the last twenty years researching and reporting on health for family and friends. She has two children, four grandchildren and lives with her husband Mickey in The Woodlands, Texas.
A message from Bob Aronson, Founder of Bob’s Newheart blogs.
Bob’s Newheart was established to support and help everyone, but particularly those who need or have had organ transplants. Most of our blogs specifically address donation/transplantation issues while others are more general, but they are all related. Because anti-rejection drugs compromise immune systems, transplant recipients are more susceptible to a variety of diseases. We provide general health and medical information to help them protect themselves while at the same time, helping others live healthier lives and avoid organ failure.
The Bob’s Newheart mission is three-fold; 1) to provide news and information that promotes healthier living so people won’t need transplants; 2) To help recipients protect their new organs and; 3) to do what we can to ensure that anyone who needs an organ can get one. About 7,000 Americans die every year while waiting for a life-saving organ. I am sure you will agree that should not happen.
In the U.S. the great majority of people support organ donation, but only about 40% of us officially become organ donors. Many have good intentions but just don’t get around to it.
No one likes thinking about their ultimate demise, but we all know there’s no way of predicting how long we will live. There are just too many intangibles. My transplanted heart came from a 30 year old man. I’m sure he had no intention of being a donor at that age. So why leave donation to chance? If you are not yet a donor, please register at www.donatelife.net it only takes a few seconds. Then, tell your family about your decision so there is no confusion when the time comes to donate.
One organ donor can save or positively affect the lives of up to 60 people. There is no nobler thing you can do than becoming an organ donor.