By: Emma Johansson
Growing up, death was not something my family talked about around the dinner table. Chances are, I’m not alone in saying that. We often deem the topic to be unsuitable for casual discussion, and we avoid it.
I was the same way–that is, until my senior year of high school, getting ready to go on a trip with my high school band to New York City. My little sister had been sick with a cold for the past few days, but it was there in my high school parking lot that I got the call that changed my life. The sickness was much more severe than expected, and my sister had passed away suddenly from what we discovered to be an extreme case of pneumonia. The rest of the story is a long one, but needless to say, this abrupt change turned me and my family’s world upside down. All of a sudden, I was forced to learn how to talk about death.
Ahh, yes. I can feel the tension through the screen. Alarms are blaring, people are hyperventilating. “What do we say to that??” they ask. Well, lucky for you, that’s exactly what I’m about to walk you through.
Education about how to interact with those who are grieving is the first step, and the lack of it can cause friends of the bereaved to withdraw. They may believe that saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing, leaving those grieving to experience social isolation when what they need the most is community. Normalizing healthy dialogue around death and grief can help those who have or will endure loss (so… everyone) immensely.
As time has passed, I have become increasingly more comfortable talking about my experience, and increasingly more aware of the usual reactions. It can be pretty easy to feel frustrated when others don’t respond in the way I want them to, and I’ve found myself on numerous occasions thinking “I wish there was a guide to let people know how to do this.” And it turns out, there… sort of is?
In a study presented at annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Jessica Rack of Purdue University and her colleagues researched the grief management strategies that were the most helpful for young adults. They had 105 college-aged students who had experienced loss within a two-year period take a Bereavement Experience Questionnaire, which included 18 questions regarding the circumstances surrounding the death. Then, participants took a modified version of the Support Intended Statements Scale, which consisted of 64 examples of grief support statements and questions which the participants rated on a 5-point scale.
They discovered that verbally expressing care and availability was one of the best things you can do to show support, using phrases such as “I’m here for you if you need company” and “I really want to know how you are doing.” Whereas minimizing the feelings of the person by trying to distract them or change topics was almost always received negatively.
This topic was further developed in a study published by The Southern Communication Journal conducted by Paige Toller of the University of Nebraska–Omaha where sets of parents who had lost children ranging in ages from 5 to 35 to a variety of causes were asked to describe what they experienced as helpful after the loss of their child.
They found that things like taking the time to share memories of the loved one was helpful. One interviewee expressed that what she enjoyed the most was hearing stories about her son. “It meant more to me, to have the friends who he shared his life with, come and tell me things I didn’t know. That gave me great joy,” she said. Hearing tangibly that her son was loved and missed was one of the key aspects of support that aided her healing.
On the flip-side, things like giving advice and providing clichés were seen as face-threatening by the participants. Statements like “everything happens for a reason” or “the Lord works in mysterious ways” can ultimately be much more detrimental. The were viewed as trivializing the pain, suggesting that the bereaved was not viewing their situation correctly, or handling it in the most efficient way. It is important to not get impatient, as there is no timeline for grief and no pre-designed path for those who have lost to follow or stray from.
And sometimes, just a quiet presence is the best way to show support. I experience this first hand every day with my roommate, whose default mode is empathy, through and through. I know that I can count on her to cry with me, laugh with me, and listen as I verbally process. She doesn’t try to fix things or make me feel as though I am wrong to still be grieving a death that happened years ago. Recognizing that the post-loss experience is an ongoing process, and that those who have lost are going to go through many different seasons is key in walking alongside them.
Being on the other end of loss for almost two years now, I can attest that these support recommendations are the absolute best way to make those who have lost feel loved and cared for. There will always be room for growth, but these steps are a great start to developing a healthy dialogue surrounding grief and the death of loved ones.