How Can You Help Someone Who is Grieving?

Guest Post by Margie Neugebauer

Note from Bob:  Margie and her husband Duane are both longtime friends and former High School Classmates of mine at Parkston High School in Parkston, South Dakota.   Margie is a licenced Grief Counselor.  So many times we encounter friends, coworkers, family members, neighbors and sometimes even strangers who are experiencing grief and find ourselves either completely tongue tied or maybe filling the air with rather meaningless words because we want to say something.  I asked Margie if she could help all of us by sharing her wisdom on what we might say or ask to be truly helpful.  Thank you Margie for doing exactly that in today’s post!

Can one recover from grief?  Many people say ‘no’.  However, the Grief Recovery Institute® says, ‘yes’ we can recover from grief and loss and learn how to move on and live an emotionally fulfilling life after loss.

The Grief Recovery Institute®, Bend, OR. states that grief is the normal and natural reaction to significant emotional loss of any kind. While grief is normal and natural, most of the information passed on within our society about dealing with grief is not normal, natural, or helpful.  Most of the information we have learned about dealing with loss is intellectual.  Grievers do not have broken heads; they have broken hearts. Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.

There are at least 43 losses that can produce the range of emotions we call grief; death, divorce, end of any relationship, loss of health, major financial changes, moving, pet loss, career changes, loss of trust, faith, safety and security and more.

The majority of incorrect ideas about dealing with losses can be summed up in six myths.

  • Time heals all wounds
  • Grieve alone
  • Be strong
  • Don’t feel bad
  • Replace the loss
  • Keep busy

These comments really don’t help grievers deal with the pain and loss they are experiencing.

Another major concept that the Grief Recovery Institute® identifies is STERBS (Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviors).  Their material lists food, exercise, smoking, alcohol/drugs, fantasy (movies, TV, books), isolation, sex, shopping, and workaholism as common STERBS.  These activities are very common and we are socialized to cover up emotional pain rather than confront it directly.

Recovery from loss is accomplished by discovering and completing all of the undelivered communications that accrue in relationships.  The Grief Recovery Method® Action Plan creates a safe environment in which to look at old beliefs about dealing with loss; to look at what losses have affected your life; and to take new actions which lead to completion of the pain attached to one or more of those losses.  The Action Plan ® facilitates the completion of the broken emotional relationship that happened in the loss.

Things not to say to someone who is grieving a death:

  • I know how you feel.
  • Look on the bright side; at least his suffering is over.
  • Don’t feel bad. Be grateful for the time you had together.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Just give it time.
  • Be strong (for others)

So how can you help your friends and family deal with losses they have experienced?

  • Focus on them, not you or your feelings.
  • Listen with empathy.
  • Ask them if they could use a hug.
  • Offer to handle specific tasks for them. (Call me if you need anything doesn’t happen-they rarely call)
  • Be a heart with ears and no mouth.
  • Let them cry. Don’t touch them till they are finished crying.

Other Suggestions:

  • Ask, what happened? And then listen.  Do not give canned responses.
  • I know that I heard about this in the news, but, in your own words, would you be willing to share with me what happened?
  • How did you find out about the accident, death, illness?
  • I remember what it was like for me, but please tell me about how you are dealing with this.
  • I can’t imagine what you are going through, would you like to tell me about it?
  • I cannot imagine how devastating/painful/heartbreaking that was for you.
  • Instead of feeling guilty, are you wishing that things might have been different or better, or perhaps you wish there had been more time to work things out.
  • Listen to the emotions under the words or actions.
  • If it was a death, specifically ask about the deceased by name.
  • Avoid theological phrases or anything that explains the loss or tells them their loved one is in a better place.
  • Avoid placing grievers into any stage of grief. (There are no stages of grief.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s research was done on people who were dying.)

Here are other comments that are helpful:

  • My heart aches with you.
  • I’m here for you.
  • You’re not alone.
  • If you want to talk about it, I’m ready to listen.
  • It’s ok to feel what you feel.
  • I’m thinking of you

Questions to help them talk:

  • What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through?
  • How do you wish people would act around you?
  • What has your life been like these last couple of weeks?
  • What is life like for you now?
  • In what ways has the reality sunk in, and in what ways does it still just seem unreal?
  • What are your greatest concerns right now?
  • What kinds of things get you by when the reality hit home and it seems overwhelming?
  • What is one thing that happened recently that made you smile and one thing or time that was difficult?
  • What is it like for you this morning?
  • What are some ways others have been helpful?

The goal of the Grief Recovery Institute® is to provide meaningful bereavement support, bereavement advice, and direction to help grievers recover from that significant emotional pain that accompanies any kind of loss. .  Grief Recovery is an Evidence-Based program.

Other material was referenced in Compassionate Communication by Corgenius, Inc., ©2016

Another useful resource is No Longer Awkward; Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life. ©2014 by Corgenius, Inc.

Margie Neugebauer


Margie Neugebauer, MA, LPC, CC, CGRMS® (Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist®) certified by the Grief Recovery Institute®


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