Can You Imagine How a Grieving Person Feels?
Grieving people need to tell their stories. How friends and family members can truly offer support.
An icy road. A no-fault car collision. In the blink of an eye, I became a 25-year-old widow with a 7-month-old baby boy. When John died, I was utterly devastated. And despite being surrounded by a multitude of loving, very well-intentioned people, none of them had a clue what to say or how to act around me. I felt isolated and alone.
Since that time, I've completed advanced education and certifications in Thanatology (the study of loss, grief and transition) and I've worked with over 2000 grieving people. I've heard and seen firsthand that wrenchingly difficult losses like mine happen all the time – there is a suicide, a child dies, a home burns to the ground, or other tragedies strike. As was the case for me, when these awful events occur, the survivors often hear a chorus of would-be comforters say, "I can't imagine how you feel!"
I've learned that "I can't imagine" still leaves a lot to be desired. When tragedy strikes in the life of someone you care about, you could do so much better.
I used to join so many others in teaching people that this is a good phrase to use, because it's not immediately hurtful like "I know how you feel." (Never say that, by the way. Even if you've had a similar loss, you never know how the other person feels.) Yet by listening to so many grievers, I've learned that "I can't imagine" still leaves a lot to be desired. When tragedy strikes in the life of someone you care about, you could do so much better.
The Isolation of Grief
The truth is: We have very active imaginations. We actually CAN imagine what they're going through. We just don't want to. We recoil at the idea of envisioning ourselves in their shoes. So we tell them, and ourselves, that we can't imagine it, and it keeps the pain at a distance. It allows us to offer pity or even sympathy, but not empathy and companionship.
That distance is palpable to the grieving person as well. When one comforter after another keeps saying, "I can't imagine how you feel," they begin to feel like a lonely outcast, thinking there must not be anyone else who has ever felt like this.
And if there isn't a single person who can imagine what this might be like, then there isn't a single person capable of accompanying them through it. Since no one cares enough to be in the pain with them, they'd better keep it to themselves. It's a very isolating experience.
Follow Their Lead
I offer two alternatives that are more helpful and supportive. As always, whenever you inquire about someone's experience of grief, you follow their lead in what they are willing to tell you. They will let you know pretty quickly if they don't want to talk, and that may be the case for a wide range of reasons.
Open the door and invite them to talk, but always allow them to shut the door and decline the invitation.
Perhaps they've been crying all morning and just found a moment of respite, so they don't want to go there. Perhaps they don't feel comfortable enough with you with talk about it yet. Perhaps they are exhausted and don't have the energy into try verbalizing their feelings right now. So, open the door and invite them to talk, but always allow them to shut the door and decline the invitation.
In the vast majority of cases, though, their story will pour out to anyone courageous and caring enough to ask. The grieving person needs to tell their story in order to make it real, comprehend what happened to them, and begin processing the experience. It's incredibly helpful when they find someone who is willing to listen.
You may be more comfortable with one or the other of these options. They both generate the same information, and both are totally invitational and non-intrusive.
Inviting the Story
You can invite the story with:
- “I’m trying to imagine what this is like for you, but I’ve never been in your shoes. How can you help me? What can you tell me that will help me better imagine what you’re going through so I can support you better? That’s what I want to do. I’m here for you, no matter what.”
- “I bet you’ve had a ton of people tell you they can’t imagine what you’re going through. If you could get into their imaginations, what would you tell them? How would you describe this experience?”
Using either of these options lets grieving friends or family members know that you "get it" in ways that others don't, that you are a uniquely supportive person who cares enough to ask, and that you truly want to companion them through whatever they're experiencing. Be sure to listen attentively as they talk, and ask more questions based on what they say.
Don't assume that telling the story just once is enough. Grieving people need to hear those words coming out of their own mouths over and over again.
Avoid taking over the conversation by talking about yourself. Your purpose is to understand the grieving person, not to tell them about you. That can be hard to do, especially if you knew the person who died, but try to stay focused on them. Clarify along the way by saying "So what I think I hear you saying is… Is that accurate or how would you tweak it?" Listen to them until you can explain it back to them as well as they can explain it to you.
Don't assume that telling the story just once is enough. Grieving people need to hear those words coming out of their own mouths over and over again. Be willing to listen for a long time down the road. Here are a few suggestions for what you can ask over time:
- Last time we talked, you said… Is that still the case, or what has changed since then?
- This has all been such a shock. In what ways are you finding that the reality is sinking in now, and in what ways does it still just seem unreal?
- What do you wish people knew about what it’s like for you now, at this point in your journey?
Remember, grief takes a lot of time, and especially so when there is a sudden loss, tragedy, or trauma. Be there for the long haul. Invite the story. Draw the grieving person in rather than pushing them away. Be there in ways that others aren't because they have never been taught and don't know how.