Bereavement, the process of coping with the loss of a loved one, is a deeply personal and emotional journey. Friends, family, and informal support providers often play a crucial role in comforting the bereaved during this difficult time. However, a recent study sheds light on a concerning aspect of this support system. The research, which involved in-depth interviews with bereaved parents and service providers, reveals some well-intentioned but insensitive remarks commonly made by people attempting to console the grieving.
While there has been significant research on the bereavement process, diagnostic criteria for grief, and possible assessment and treatment options, little attention has been given to the role of laypeople in supporting the bereaved. This study, published in OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, aimed to understand how friends, family members, and other informal support providers attempt to console those who are grieving, particularly bereaved parents. The researchers were interested in exploring how certain comments and actions affected the grieving process and the emotional well-being of those mourning the loss of a child.
The study involved 20 bereaved parents and 11 service providers, who were interviewed individually over two hours. The participants were asked to describe their experiences and feelings during the bereavement process, specifically related to the death of a child. They were also asked to identify keywords for different time periods within their bereavement journey and share what was helpful and unhelpful during those times. The interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim to ensure accuracy.
One of the central findings of the study was the detrimental impact of insensitive remarks made by well-meaning individuals. Participants reported feeling hurt and frustrated by comments that were intended to console them but came across as unhelpful. These remarks fell into several categories, including religious explanations for the loss, comparisons to others’ grief, inappropriate questions, and advice-giving.
Religious explanations such as “It was God’s will” or “God wanted another angel” were mentioned as unhelpful and sometimes hurtful. The study suggests that individuals should consider the bereaved person’s level of religiosity before offering religious explanations. This finding highlights the importance of tailoring support to the individual’s beliefs and preferences.
Comparing one’s grief to that of others or making inappropriate comparisons, such as “I know what you’re going through because I lost my mother,” was also cited as unhelpful. Such comparisons can minimize the unique pain experienced by the bereaved and fail to provide the comfort intended.
Another notable finding was the negative impact of advice-giving. Participants expressed frustration when people offered unsolicited advice, such as “You should do this” or “You’ll get over it.” Bereaved parents often felt that these suggestions were an attempt to divert their attention from their grief, which was not always welcomed. This suggests that offering advice may not be the most helpful approach when consoling the grieving.
Lastly, insensitive remarks often implied an expectation of a quick recovery. Comments like “You’ll be a lot better once you get through Christmas” or “It’s been six months; aren’t you better yet?” were perceived as insensitive and dismissive of the grieving process. This finding highlights the need for greater awareness and sensitivity when supporting someone through grief.
It’s important to note that the study participants recognized that those who made insensitive remarks did not intend to be hurtful. Instead, they were trying to offer comfort and support but lacked the understanding of how their words might affect the bereaved. This emphasizes the importance of education and awareness regarding effective ways to console those who are grieving.
On the other hand, the study revealed several critical insights into what helps bereaved parents during their grieving process.
Consistently, participants spoke about the importance of non-judgmental support from family, friends, spouses, and employers. Those who had access to such support found it invaluable. It helped them feel less isolated and lonely during a profoundly challenging time. Local bereavement services and peer-support groups also played a crucial role in providing validation for their feelings and allowing them to share their experiences with others who understood their grief.
For some bereaved parents, returning to work provided structure and routine, which they found helpful. The support of co-workers also contributed to their healing process. For those who didn’t have work to provide structure, they either created routines or expressed a desire for employment to prevent excessive dwelling on their loss.
Participants highlighted the significance of practical assistance from their support networks, such as help with childcare, funeral arrangements, and meal preparation. These acts of kindness reminded them to take care of themselves during a time when they often lacked the energy or motivation to do so.
The study, “Consoling the Bereaved: Exploring How Sympathy Cards Influence What People Say“, was authored by Kimberly A. Calderwood and Amy M. Alberton.