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Grief Perspectives
Scholar's Corner
Resource Review
Your Professional Library

Helping the Bereaved Respond to "Well-Intentioned" Comments

by William G. Hoy
Over the last several weeks, I have heard several recently-bereaved friends and constituents note the well-intentioned but unhelpful things they have been told, especially in the early weeks after loss. As all of us know who provide care for these individuals, these kinds of comments may be intended by the person speaking them as helpful to the bereaved but for many reasons, fail to provide help.

This is a perplexing problem for counselors and others who provide help to bereaved people. We work particularly hard to provide helpful comments that do not minimize the loss, do not make meaning prematurely, and that do not discredit the experience of loss in all of its dimensions. It is amazing how all of this careful work with bereaved people can be so quickly “undone” by one or two careless comments.
Acknowledge the woundedness of words. Words matter and hurtful words matter mightily. We can acknowledge this fact—in support groups, in individual sessions with bereaved individuals, and in casual conversations. I have found that bereaved persons often “seethe” over the things that have been told them, thinking all the while there must be something wrong with them because they are angry at what they have been told.
It is a gift when we ask bereavement groups and bereaved individuals, “So what are the worst two or three things you have been told since your ______ died?” In bereavement groups, this often creates a bit of lighthearted banter as group members ooh and ahh over the awful things their fellow group members have been told. This also serves to add some perspective as group members they have not been singled out to hear dumb remarks.
Our asking about the hurtful words people have heard—and what their reactions are to them—serves another purpose. It makes it clear to our clients and patients that just like them, we find such wounding words to be unacceptable and want to call them what they are. Simply giving voice to such pain in the presence of a caring witness can be healing balm for a bereaved soul.
Teach the bereaved to become teachers. While it is sad that bereaved people must take on still another task, they have the opportunity to teach their well-meaning friends. One response I have taught to bereaved individuals to dispassionately say is: “Mary, I know you intend that comment to be helpful but I would like to explain why it is not. You see, no one child can replace another” or “Mark, thank you for your concern. What I have learned is that Bob’s death is relief as you say but it is much more; it is also great sadness. Please acknowledge the sadness in addition to the relief when you talk to people who are grieving.”
Bereaved people are empowered when we provide catchphrases with which to respond to hurtful words. I remind bereaved people often that if a relationship is worth saving, it is worth pointing out our friends’ (or family members’) carelessness with words. Even hurtful words are uttered in the hope of being helpful and caring; helping bereaved people see they are uttered without malice can be a great gift.
Assume the best from friends rather than the worst. Let’s face it: some of the things friends say to our bereaved patients/clients make one think, “Wow, if that is what a friend thinks, I don’t want to hear from an enemy!” Yet, after more than 35 years of doing this work, I have become pretty certain that friends do not usually intend harm by their words; they usually intend only good. Part of my job has to be helping my patient/client to see this truth even while NOT excusing careless words. No bereaved mother should be told by anyone, “You are young and can have another” or “Well at least you have other children.” But asking a client to process with you what might have been going on in the mind of the person offering the careless comment can be useful. My favorite question in such a context is, “Wow. That is a hurtful thing and I know how deeply those words wound. What do you think might have been going on in her mind when she said that? Where do you think that could have come from?”
In a related context, last week I was providing support to a friend whose mother was dying. The mom had been anything but supportive over the years, had constantly found fault with my friend, and had reminded her how poorly she measured up to the mom’s expectations. In short, my friend has expressed many times over the years how she felt like her mother always saw her—and communicated verbally—that she was a disappointment.
Though the mother was already unconscious, in the last 36 hours or so of her life, my friend and I talked about what she knew of her mom’s background. She explained that she had recently learned her mother had been sexually abused by a male relative when she was a child though the mom had never talked about that in all of her 86 years. She had been left for days at a time with no money with which to feed her own children while her wealthy—and apparently stingy—husband travelled for a living (no surprise the mother “put on her dancing shoes” when the husband died!” While forgiveness is a strong word after a lifetime of bad behavior, I would say that my friend found some understanding about some of what might have led to the behavior. She did not excuse it or minimize it (oh, it wasn’t that bad…) but she did seem to gain some new perspective on how much her mother had suffered and this created just a bit of grace toward her in the dying hours of her mother’s life.
The bottom line is that we have to help bereaved individuals to “take charge” of their experience inasmuch as they can. Helping them gain some fresh perspective on hurtful words is one way to do that.

The Author: For more than three decades, William G. Hoy has been counseling with the bereaved, supporting the dying and their families, and teaching colleagues how to provide effective care. After a career in congregation, hospice, and educational resource practice, he now holds a full-time teaching appointment as Clinical Professor of Medical Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas where he has taught since 2012. His most recent book is Bereavement Groups and the Role of Social Support: Bridging Theory, Research, and Practice (Routledge, 2016).

Resource Review
Ask Dr. Neimeyer - a weekly Q&A with an Expert
Each week Dr. Robert Neimeyer, a distinguished psychology professor and expert in the field of thanatology, releases a blog post in which he answers a question he’s received from a grieving person. His responses eloquently blend compassion statements with researched methods of helpful ways for bereaved persons to make movements in their grief. Often tackling taboo or complex situations, Dr. Neimeyer’s posts offer a weekly exposure to the hushed realities of grief and the ways we can navigate those mysterious places.
Your Professional Library
Bowler, Kate. (2018). Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. New York, NY: Random House.
Reviewed by Molly A. Keating, MA, CT
Editor, GriefPerspectives
“Is God good? Is God fair?” – perhaps you’ve never felt safe asking these questions. Perhaps you know your answer and it’s “no”. Author Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School specializing in the study of the prosperity gospel, found herself asking these questions more directly and darkly than she had ever imagined she would. Just 35 years old, married with a son, Kate is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
Her diagnosis propels her into questions and thinking that seem in direct conflict with the specialty she studied; the notion that if you just do the right things, life will be good back to you. In other words, life will be fair to you and if something bad happens, you caused it, nay deserve it.
Bowler does a wonderful job not making this ideology a problem of the church alone, but of American society as a whole. In our desire for controlled outcomes and success we don’t know what to do when the tragic or unthinkable barges in. We resort to blame when perhaps we should simple shrug our shoulders and embrace.
Her personal account is not bogged in unrelatable details, but exemplary over and over of how dying is treated and mistreated in our medical, social and religious communities. She speaks with a clear voice to the questions, pains and staggering changes that come with a terminal diagnosis. Perhaps most significantly, she speaks to what it looks like to live while you are dying and the wisdom of not “skipping to the end” simply because you know it’s there.
This book is an excellent resource for caretakers, friends and family members, and patients alike. It’s a roadmap through some of the most difficult questions with solid and uncomfortable but undeniable truths blossoming at the end. Bowler concludes her work with a couple pages dedicated to what not to say to a sick/dying person and a few more with ideas on what we could say or do that would be helpful. Her thoughtful approach and extremely intelligent first-hand account of this process makes her book as hard to put down as it is important to read.
Research that Matters
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