While we can’t prevent our loved ones from experiencing disenfranchised grief, we can develop helpful and supportive responses to their losses that can lessen their other experiences of disenfranchisement and help them overcome the powerlessness and helplessness that disenfranchised grievers often feel. In much of my work, I talk about the central role of communication in supporting people who are suffering, dying, or grieving.
The relationship between grief and memory is a fascinating one. In the mourning process, survivors may work and rework through every moment of the dying process that occurred and the days that followed it, recreating in vivid detail the timeline of events that happened. This psychological process is an attempt to “get it right” – to understand the story of how a loss happened and how they, as mourners, came to be where they are.
Within that processing are also crystallized memories of the communicated responses they received from others in the early moments and days of their loss; I have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of survivors being able to quote verbatim helpful or harmful phrases – even word choices – from literally decades earlier. Clearly, the communication extended to survivors in their bereavement is crucial. So how do we make it more helpful?
If your loved one is grieving, consider employing the following strategies for effective and supportive communication:
Practice Attuned Listening
Attunement demonstrates to our loved ones that we are both attentive and responsive to them. Most survivors benefit from telling their stories of loss, being able to share their feelings, and having others bear witness to their pain. Attuned listening is best practiced in a private setting, without interruption, where your loved one can be afforded your complete attention. To support someone who is grieving, it is important that you are the follower, not the leader, of the conversation. Ask questions based on the thoughts and feelings your loved one raises as opposed to trying to set an agenda for them. Use the language that they use in relation to the loss. Of central importance in practicing attuned listening is acquiring an understanding of someone’s loss as they understand and feel it, not guiding the person who is grieving toward understandings or feelings that you assume they are experiencing.
Employ Verbal Validation
All aspects of disenfranchised grief involve invalidating the survivor, whether due to the nature of their loss, their relationship to the deceased, or their perceived grief responses. Therefore, validating a loved one’s grief is crucial in avoiding disenfranchised grief. Validate the relationship, not only in terms of how they were connected to the deceased but also in relation to the complex nature of the relationship and its history as they are communicated to you by your loved one. It is also important to validate all emotional responses of your loved one, not merely those that you’ve experienced yourself. The emotional responses to grief are rarely simple; ask questions to demonstrate your desire to understand their responses and concerns.
Avoid Imposition or Identification
We often assume that others' experiences of and responses to loss are the same as those we’ve experienced ourselves. They aren't. Every experience of grief is unique. Therefore, work to avoid statements that unintentionally impose your experiences on others. "I know how you feel; I lost an aunt to cancer, too" or "You must be feeling so sad/overwhelmed/angry right now" are two such statements. Helpful communication with grieving persons involves making an attempt to learn how they feel, not making assumptions about how they are feeling or comparing it to your own losses. When grieving persons hear statements of imposition or identification, they are more likely to withhold their actual feelings out of fear of being perceived as “abnormal” in their grief. Remember: be the follower, not the leader.
Abstain from Disenfranchising Language
If your loved one is a member of a socially oppressed group, use language that demonstrates knowledge of and sensitivity to their identity and position. When in doubt about language in relation to race, culture, gender identity, or sexual identity, just ask. It is also helpful to avoid disenfranchising terms and phrases developed around causes of death. Some common examples include: "committed suicide," "lost her battle," "killed himself," and "couldn’t overcome their demons." While our intentions when we use terms like these might be good, each of these phrases either stigmatizes or places responsibility for the death upon the person who has died. More broadly, avoid the "at least" statements that, while also well-intentioned, often signal to our loved one that they shouldn’t be feeling what they are feeling – or to the degree they are feeling it – following a death. "At least you got to say goodbye"; "at least she didn’t suffer"; and "at least he is out of pain" are three examples of the "at least" statements that may subtly but unfortunately disenfranchise the grief someone is experiencing.
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She teaches at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops and seminars on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups.