Three suggestions for dealing with insensitive consolations

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My husband, Joseph, has been gone less than a year, and I can’t believe the stupid things people say to me, trying to make me “feel better.”  “Time heals all wounds–you just need to stay busy,” “You’ve got to look on the bright side; at least you had him all these years,” and “God never gives us more than we can bear” are just a few.  Sometimes I feel that these clumsy consolations are more than I can bear!  It makes me just want to avoid everyone; nobody seems to “get it.”

What can I do when people approach me with this sort of advice or comment?  It feels like they are minimizing the importance of Jack’s death, or just trying to push me in a direction I don’t feel ready to go.  Should I just try to steer clear of social situations and go it on my own?

Helen

Dear Helen,

It is ironic, but when we are approached with the wrong kind of “consolation,” our grief can be compounded by anger and a deep sense of isolation, even in the midst of a social gathering.  What our hearts generally crave in bereavement is compassionate understanding, patience, and sometimes genuine partnership in stepping back into life, rather than to be offered Hallmark card platitudes or prescriptions that seem poorly attuned to where we are.  But the reality is that not everyone will have the empathy and ability to meet us in the difficult emotional space in which we find ourselves, and offer the sort of social support we really need.

So what can we do, you ask, when we are blind-sided by these unhelpful comments?  Here are three suggestions that might help.

  1. Recognize the intent behind the words. Often the people making the blunder genuinely want to be helpful or express that they care, but they simply don’t know, or in an anxious moment, can’t find, the words that adequately convey that.  In such cases, especially if you know the person to be caring and supportive in other contexts, try listening beneath the language to the feeling that is finding only very awkward expression.  Practice responses that you can draw on in such situations, such as, “I appreciate your understanding at this hard time,” or simply, “Thanks.  I hope that is true, too.”  Just as we can continue to love a child without accepting his or her behavior, it is often possible to embrace the intent even if not its awkward expression.
  1. Set your boundaries. Some advice is welcome, especially when we seek it from trusted sources.  But unsolicited advice is often misdirected.  Like a “postage due” letter delivered to you by the mail carrier, you have the option whether to accept it at a price or simply decline it.  Affirming your boundaries in this way need not take the form of a hostile or angry response; it could be as simple as saying, “Thanks for your suggestion, but I just can’t do that right now,” or “I’m not ready for that yet, but I’ll keep that in mind for the future.”  If you share a religious faith with someone who is being a bit pushy about offering spiritual consolation, you might respond simply, “Thanks.  Keep me in your prayers.”  In other words, with a bit of forethought, you can often acknowledge the advice or consolation without taking delivery of it, but also without rejecting the person who clumsily offers it.
  1. Look elsewhere. Most of us have some reliable people in our lives who can provide genuine support of a tangible or emotional kind, and who are better at listening than speaking when what we really want is an audience rather than an authority.  Seek out contact with these special people who can hear what others cannot, and try to balance your need to express your grief with reports of your genuine efforts to embrace life once more.  The deepened discussions and friendships that follow can do much to alleviate your isolation and provide true companionship on the path going forward.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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