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Making It Worse (and How Not To)

Making It Worse (and How Not To)

Making It Worse (and how not to)

You can barely make out the hysterical voice of your friend at the other end of the line.  Something terrible has happened.  They are in shock, hurting and trying to make sense of a tragedy that has just rocked their world and may change their lives forever.  You want to help.  But, grasping for the right words, the opposite comes tumbling out of your mouth and the awkward silence that follows only punctuates your failed choice of response.

What are you supposed to say when someone is hurting?  They seem to want your help and you genuinely want to help them.  But, everything you say seems to be argued, dismissed, or simply ignored.  Why is it so hard to talk to hurting people?

As they say, “it takes two to tango”.  So, the answer is it’s you…and it’s them.  And, since your friend is preoccupied with their loss, you might have to do a little more adjusting in this scenario.  But, remembering a few things about the process of grieving can help.

1. Grieving people need your presence more than your words.  You might think a pep talk is what they need.  But, grieving people have a tornado of their own thoughts and feelings tearing up their internal world.  What they need more than anything is calm, caring friends to be there for whatever words or feelings come out of them.  It is healing and comforting for them to be heard and not judged.

2. Grieving people need to “try on” their own reactions to the loss without interruption.  That’s why people who are grieving often bristle when someone else tries to explain their loss to them.  They need room to fluctuate between denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance for days, weeks, and months until the grief is more fully processed.

3. Grieving people send mixed signals.  They ask questions they don’t really want you to answer because it’s part of the process of grief.  But, if you don’t realize this, you might get frustrated when they interrupt you or dismiss what you have to say.  It can be helpful to echo their question rather than offer an answer.  If a friend asks, “Why did he have to die so young?”, your response should not be “Well, it must have been his time” or “Well, he was always a pretty reckless driver, so…” but rather something like, “Yeah, I’ve wondered that, too…”

4. Grieving people have changing needs.  Unfortunately, the pep talk that brought a smile to their face yesterday may bring anger if you try it today.  But, don’t be discouraged.  Try something else.  Sometimes, just sitting quietly with them in the same room is enough.

5. Grieving people know you are trying to help.  Under their preoccupying loss, people know when you are trying to reach out and they do (usually) appreciate it.  But, their ability to acknowledge your efforts may be temporarily paralyzed, until their emotions begin to stabilize.  For now, think of them as being in a sort of “emotional coma” — they can usually hear you, they just can’t respond right now.

The fact is being around hurting people is hard.  But, you will be better equipped to brave the emotional storm that’s brewing in your loved one’s life, if you keep these points in mind.  You’ll actually be helping, instead of making it worse.  And, that’s a good thing.

Katherine Carter

LMFT & Director | Westminster Center

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