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Monday, November 26, 2012

Expressing Condolences in a Caring and Tactful Manner

Over the years, I've had many psychotherapy clients who have come to me after the loss of a loved one, who expressed how hurt and angry they felt about the manner in which family and friends expressed their condolences.  Often, these clients told me that well-meaning friends expressed their condolences by saying things like, "You shouldn't feel bad--he's in a better place now," which only served to infuriate and frustrate the clients who had sustained the loss.

Expressing Condolences in a Caring and Tactful Manner
Use Tact When Expressing Condolences
If only people who said these kinds of things could stop for a moment and think about what a tactless remark this is, and how it fails to take into account what a grieving person is feeling at that moment.

It's understandable that many people feel that whatever they might say to someone who is grieving would be inadequate to the grieving person's feelings.  It's also understandable that, although we're all going to die one day, many people feel uncomfortable talking about or dealing with death.  But that's no excuse for the lack of an empathetic response to someone who is grieving.

Be Empathetic When Expressing Condolences
Like many other situations, it helps to try to put yourself in the other person's shoes.  If someone you loved very much died, would you find it helpful to you emotionally to hear your feelings invalidated?   I'm sure not.  Yet, this is what people do, unintentionally, when they tell a grieving person that they shouldn't feel sad because their loved one is in "a better place."

Mostly, people who are grieving want the emotional support of friends and family.  A simple, "I'm sorry for your loss" is fine.  The person who is grieving over the loss doesn't expect that you're going to find the magic phrase to make him or her feel better.  He or she just wants to know that you cared enough to show up and pay your respects.

Sharing meaningful memories with the person who is grieving can also be a tactful and meaningful way to show that you care.  I remember being at a funeral several years ago for a friend's mother.  Her mother's former coworker told her a few memorable stories about her mother, things that my friend didn't know and that she enjoyed hearing about it.  I could see how moved she was to hear these stories as well as hearing how well liked her mother had been at the office.

Everyone Grieves Differently
It's also important to remember that everyone grieves in his or her own way, which might not be the way you grieve.  So, we must all remind ourselves that there is no way one to go through the grieving process.  It's especially not helpful to urge widows or widowers to "move on" before they're ready.

I'm reminded of a friend who, having lost her husband of 15 years only a few months before, had to deal with a well-meaning friend who was urging her to "move on" and start dating before my friend was ready.  These remarks made my friend feel very alone in her grief, as if she was some kind of "freak" who was continuing to grieve after what others thought was too long a time period.

Eventually, she stopped listening to people who were urging her to "move on" and she mourned her husband in the way that felt right for her.  A couple of years later, she began taking tentative steps to start dating casually, and she eventually met her current husband.  But it was important for her to go through the grieving process in her own way.

Let Compassion and Empathy Be Your Guide When Expressing Condolences
If you feel uncomfortable and not sure of what to say to a friend or family member who is grieving, rather than allowing your discomfort to lead to tactless remarks, let compassion and empathy be your guide.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, you can visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, you can call me at (212) 726-1006.

Also see my article: Coping with the Loss of a Loved One: How to Take Care of Yourself