Often times we don’t know what to say or do when faced with someone in our lives in the throes of grief. We are afraid of putting our foot in our mouth or asking the wrong thing. The good news is we don’t really have to say anything at all. We just have to listen. Being an effective listener to someone who is grieving can be one of the greatest gifts we can give.
But what does being a good listener really look like? Well, it’s fairly simple and only requires a little bit of extra effort on your part.
- Get rid of distractions. Shut off the cell phone, close the door if you are somewhere with commotion or traffic happening outside. Leave the television or radio off. Face away from the clock to avoid checking the time.
- Listen with more than your ears. This means engaging the person who is talking with your entire body. Lean forward in your chair, refrain from crossing your arms and make eye contact. Hold a soft gaze rather than staring (staring won’t make you seem interested so much as just plain creepy).
- Don’t interrupt. Sometimes this can be the hardest one. For extroverts like me, biting your tongue to keep from bursting out with a story of your own can make you sweat with exertion. But interrupting is a clear signal to the person sharing that you don’t value what they are saying. In fact, it’s sort of like holding a flashing neon sign that shouts, “My story is better than yours!”
- Leave your judgments at the door. Forget what you think you know on grief. No book you have read or previous loss of your own can prepare you for what the griever is going through at this very moment. Each person’s grief journey is unique and what might have worked for you won’t necessarily work for them (or anyone else). Above all else, refrain from giving advice!
- Reaffirm what is said. Repeat or paraphrase back to the griever what they have said. This is important because it shows you were listening and can help ensure you haven’t misunderstood anything. Acknowledge what the griever is going through with simple statements like, “that must have been really difficult.”
- If you don’t know what to say, say nothing. Don’t feel pressured to speak or come up with something eloquent. The griever isn’t talking to you with an expectation that you are there to solve their problems or suddenly give them insight into their grief that they hadn’t considered before. In fact, they are the experts on their grief – not you. If you are a nervous talker who can’t help but fill the silence, work on simply nodding or asking a question instead.
- Respect confidentiality. Above all else, remember that sharing your grief with someone else can be a daunting and terrifying task. The griever is being very vulnerable by talking about their loss and the worst thing you can possibly do is show them that you are not trustworthy by repeating anything they have said to someone else. This is a sacred covenant of the griever and listener and needs to be remembered at all times. If you find yourself overwhelmed or desperately needing to talk about what you have hard, go to a professional counselor who will be a listener to you and maintain your confidentiality.
Our thanks to guest author Emily Clark for sharing her story here with us. You can read more of Emily’s journey through young widowhood on her blog.