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Paying Our Respects with Respect

The key to offering ease to a grieving friend is respect. Why respect? Because we actually do respect them, and showing them our respect helps them heal. Unfortunately, the condolences we know and say most frequently, tend to be disrespectful.

We don’t want to unwittingly do harm to a friend, especially when they’re already hurting and need us. So let’s pause to take a look at some assumptions and hidden messages contained in many pat condolences.

Take heart! Just seeing this starts to put respect and compassion back into our condolences!

1. Hidden Message #1 – What I (the consoler) want to know is more important than what you (the griever) are saying.

This seems extreme, I know, but it’s how grievers can feel being on the receiving end of the following condolences. So let’s have some curiosity in seeing how Message #1 is being delivered within condolences like these:

  • How did your son die? ☹

  • How old was he? ☹

  • What did he die from? ☹

  • Was it sudden or expected? ☹

  • Are you going to have/adopt another baby? ☹

New kinda care. Questions show caring, right? Not for grievers. Our questions ask grievers to re-traumatize themselves as they go back into the painful moments of their loss just so they can answer our questions. It’s in sharing about their loss that grievers find healing. So if we want to offer them some ease (console them), we must put our needs aside and say condolences that show our griever that we’re listening to what they have to share:

  • Thank you for telling me how you’re doing. 😊

  • I’m so sorry for what you’re having to endure. My heart is with you. 😊

  • I’m so very sorry. 😊

It can be hard to still our inquisitive mind and listen, but we can be empathetic toward them without knowing a single death detail—which is what grievers need.

Not your regular convo. In casual conversation it’s acceptable to reroute or interrupt someone to ask a question. But grievers aren’t in a casual conversation. They’re working to solve the biggest problem of their life: How to live with constant grief. They need us to stand by them as they do this. With so much emotion, it can be hard to keep our eye on the prize: That we’re there to console them. What a gift to them when we say something like this instead:

  • I’m honored that you’ve shared with me how you are. Thank you. 😊

  • I have no idea how to comfort you except to say I’m with you. 😊

Are you sure you’re caring? Asking a griever questions looks like we’re participating in a vulnerable, heart-felt conversation with them, but actually we’re not. Most questions are smoke-screens—they don’t actually reveal anything about how we feel—which confuses grievers since they’re vulnerable and are helped when we share some of our vulnerability, too.

  • I have no idea what to do for you. But I’m with you. 😊

  • I’m not very good with words, but I’m a good cook. Can I show you my caring by bringing you a lasagna or chicken casserole? 😊 [Be specific with your offer.]

Hidden Message #2 – I know better than you do what you should do.

We don’t mean to say this, but see how Message #2 can be contained in the following condolences:

  • Don’t you think you should start getting out? Are you sure? ☹

  • You’ve just got to move on/let it go. ☹

  • Sally would want you to be happy. ☹

  • I know just what we should do; let’s go out and get drunk and forget about all this. ☹

Is "frustrating" the effect we want? Let’s think about what it’s like to receive suggestions we haven’t asked for. On a good day it lands somewhere between not-so-bad and a little frustrating. But on a bad day—which likely is most days for the bereaved—unsolicited advice is unbearable. Grievers don’t need us to be a counselor, know-it-all or advisor. They need the respect of a vulnerable peer who they can share with. Let’s do their heart some good and share vulnerable condolences like this:

  • This sounds so very hard to bear; I’m with you in this, whatever it takes. 😊

  • I don’t know what to say other than I love you and I’m with you. 😊

  • Oh, buddy, that sounds brutal. 😊

Unsolicited advice and suggestions create a one-ups-man-ship situation where we’re up and the griever is down. Grievers need the respect of being treated as an equal.

  • I have no idea why we must suffer such painful losses, but I’m here standing with you in this. 😊

Hidden Message #3 – You can’t argue with what I’m saying because I’m telling you what God wants for you, and I know God’s will better than you do.

Yes, Message #3 might sound a bit over the top, but let’s see from the griever’s perspective how we might be sending this message when we say condolences like these:

  • God only gives us as much as we can handle. ☹

  • God works all things for the good. ☹

  • God doesn’t make mistakes. ☹

My beliefs not yours. As noted in Message 2., unsolicited suggestions are hard to swallow, but unsolicited spiritual suggestions can be even more difficult for grievers because they don’t feel strong enough to tell us when it hurts having us meddle in their deeply personal beliefs at a time when they can’t defend themselves. Even if you’re a friend that regularly talks spirituality with them, spiritual ideas may not be helpful now. Instead, try something like this:

  • I wish I could save you from any of your pain, but I’ll pray for your burdens to be eased. 😊

  • I’ll keep you in my prayers. 😊

Hidden Message #4 – I don’t respect your beliefs so you should believe what I believe and you’ll feel better.

Check out these condolences to see if they actually respect the griever’s deeply personal spiritual beliefs:

  • It’s good she’s in a better place now. ☹

  • What do you think the lesson is in this for you? ☹

Maybe the griever doesn’t share your beliefs. Also, offering ideas—even spiritual ideas—as a solution for painful emotions is like mixing oil and water. Try something like this instead:

  • Your loss is just so painful. The only ease I know to offer is my love. 😊

  • I miss Bill, too. This must be so hard for you. 😊

Hidden Message #5 – Let me disrespect your loss by hinting that if you (the griever) will just think of your loss in this way (my way), you’ll have nothing to be sad about.

See how unintentionally we send Message #5 in the following condolences:

  • At least she went quickly. ☹

  • At least she had her family around her. ☹

  • At least [anything]. ☹

How “At least” diminishes others. Condolences starting with, “At least,” completely miss the reason our grieving friend is sad—they miss their person. All the “At least” theories in the world aren’t going to bring back their loved one. Try these condolences from the heart instead:

  • I just don’t know what to say, except I love you. 😊

  • Oh, this is just so hard; would you like a hug? 😊

One common thread. All these double-message-style condolences share one set of common double-messages:

I’m afraid of grief, I’m afraid of your suffering, I believe I have to fix your pain.

It’s not the absence of fear that gives us helpful condolences, it’s admitting our fear to ourselves that puts the respect back into paying our respects. We can be afraid and still take compassionate action for a grieving friend.

Be happy! The great news is, the only thing needed to stop acting out our fear on the griever in our condolences, is to notice our fear. That’s it. Once we accept our fear, it builds the common ground between us and the griever. Then we’re free to Be a Bridge of compassion over to where grief has taken our grieving friend and stand by them there. This is what grievers need.


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