Six Questions To Ask Yourself Before Comforting A Mourner


I thought my days of having to listen to and tolerate the painful words of would-be comforters had ended, but I was wrong. Even as I approach almost 20 years after the deaths of my wife and two-year-old daughter in a multicar accident I still hear and endure upsetting statements from people who do not think before they speak.

Two weeks ago I had just finished speaking to a group of mourners at a bereavement dinner. I had been giving them tips on how to deal with the many troublesome emotions of grief. Suddenly I heard a question from behind me. “So your entire family was in the car at the time of the accident?” said a female voice. “That must’ve been horrible for you.”

As I gathered up my belongings from the podium, I turned to stare directly into the face of a woman just a few inches away from my face. “Yes, it was horrible. Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate them,” I replied not knowing what else to say.

“Well, I don’t know how you got through that. I just don’t know how you did it. Your wife and daughter both killed in a traffic accident.” said the woman shaking her head with a look of pity in her eyes. “And you said that your two-year-old daughter died instantly in the crash?”

I could feel an anger welling up inside of me as I recognized this lady was like so many people who wanted to know the graphic details of my wife’s and my daughter’s deaths. There are just some people who can’t help themselves and seem to be interested in examining the unspeakable particulars of someone else’s loss experience like an overly curious passerby stopping to study each minute facet of a car crash or a train wreck, no matter how heart-breaking or horrific. “Yes, my daughter died instantly,” I said trying not to sound as irritated as I was quickly becoming.

“Well, it must be a comfort to you to know that your daughter didn’t suffer any pain. I mean she died instantly so there was no pain,” said the lady as she tilted her head closer to me in a way familiar to most mourners as the comforter tries to display empathy. “Yes, I’m sure that it is a comfort to know that your daughter died instantly in the crash.”

Fortunately for me and the empathetic lady speaking another mourner at that moment grabbed my hand and my attention away from the lady whose statement was still ringing in my ears and stabbing my heart with its insensitivity. “Thank you so much for what you said today,” said the welcome interruption. “It meant so much to me.” Fortunately I had been spared the temptation to strike back at the first woman for the emotional pain that had just been inflicted on me

THINK. THINK, would-be comforters, family members, friends, coworkers and neighbors. THINK before you speak to mourners. Once those words, no matter how well intended, are spoken, they cannot be taken back and the pain they inflict will always be remembered. That does not mean you should allow the fear that you might say or do something wrong for a mourner to keep you from doing anything at all for them.

Mourners need your involvement, support and encouragement. They need to know that you are safe to be with during their grief and that you are present for them when they need you. But please, THINK before you say anything to them.

Before you speak to a mourner you might want to THINK about these questions:

• Is what I am about to say going to comfort, encourage or help the mourner? Or is it just something that will make me feel more at ease or comfortable in the situation?

• Is what I am about to say something that would be comforting to me if I were in the mourner’s shoes? Or is it just something that will make me sound insensitive or uncaring?

• Is what I am about to say something that will help the mourner walk through this dark time in their life and to find their direction through grief in a healthy way? Or is it just something that tries to “fix” or “rescue” the mourner or to “explain away” their need to hurt so badly in the ways that they do?

• Is what I about to say something that the mourner can hear and understand that someone does care for them and what they are going through? Or is it just a glib, trite response to the person’s grief which will probably be drowned out by the deafening pain they are currently experiencing?

• Is what I am about to say something that will bring the both of us closer together as friends? Or is it possibly a painful statement that will come between the two of us and change our relationship?

• Is what I am about to say something that is strictly for the well being of the mourner? Or is it just something that will make me look better or feel better about myself?

Another point to THINK about when speaking to a mourner is that if you are about to say something that is life-changing, inspirational and unbelievably profound, it’s probably better to just keep your mouth shut and just listen to the mourner. Mourners are not interested in knowing how eloquent or wise you may be. Mourners are interested in knowing that you are there for them, that you will listen to them, that you will not judge them, that you will not give them unsolicited advice, and that you care.

Think before you speak to a mourner. Think and choose your words lovingly and carefully.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Love-Never-LPC-S-Larry-Barber/dp/1613796005 ), Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/love-never-dies-lpc-s-ct-larry-m-barber-ct-larry-m/1104364890?ean=9781613796016).

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” 

Both English and Spanish versions are available for Kindle and Nook. Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX  http://grief-works.org.

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About griefminister

Director, GriefWorks & CounselingWorks Licensed Professional Counselor Certified in Thanatology (Study of Death, Dying & Bereavement) by The Association of Death Education and Counseling Grief Therapist, Educator, Consultant Author-"Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise.'
This entry was posted in Grief Support, Spiritual Health. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Six Questions To Ask Yourself Before Comforting A Mourner

  1. Roberta Verderico LMFT says:

    Most people want to help, but don’t understand that sometimes the less said, the better. Even after many years, detailed discussions bring all the pain back and retraumatize the mourner. Your blog is very helpful.

  2. Great blog Larry. I too, so many years since Joe’s death, still get asked too tell details that are less than helpful to healing.

    • Thank, Audrey, for your comment. Most people are not intentionally hurtful. They just don’t think before they start speaking. Most of what they say can be centered around them and their needs rather than around the mourner and his/her needs.

  3. Carol Cowan, RN says:

    Larry, you get a gold star for not just saying, “Get away from me”. You were speaking to help mourners deal with their grief and one of them decided to revisit your painful loss. I lost my parents in a plane crash and some of my friends said, “At least they went together”. I understand that one would have been grief stricken by the loss, but I was grief stricken over two losses.
    You make really good points about measuring the value of comments made to mourners. Although I’m a hospice nurse, I hadn’t thought through all of the comments that might hurt someone who’s suffered a loss. Thanks for sharing this.
    Carol

    • Although I didn’t say anything hurtful in return, I thought about it. When we are hurt personally, especially suddenly and unexpectedly, our first response it is to inflict pain in return. But we don’t have the right to hurt others simply because we hurt.
      Thanks for your comments and sharing your story.

    • Thanks, Carol. Although I get angry at folks who don’t really think before they offer help in awkward and painful statements, I sometimes wonder how many times I did the same to others before my loss experiences. Hospice staff are truly angels. Keep up the good work.

  4. Nicely done. Thanks for sharing.

  5. And then, there are those people who just prefer to skim over your grief…in other words, “Can we please get through this so we can talk about something else?” I had this experience yesterday. A “friend” who I did not see since my son’s unexpected death stopped by on her way to visit her daughter who lives in our state. She never mentioned the death of our son, and when I told her that I am still going through difficult times, she responded, “Yeah…I’m sure.” Then, it was on to some other subject. I felt a search of anger at what I interpreted as a lack of compassion & sensitivity.

    I’m an RN, Clinical Medical Hypnotherapist & Oncology Nurse. I’ve touched death over & over. I realize I’m sensitive about compassion, and quite honestly, I don’t buy into the idea that people just don’t know what to say. Just about every adult, somewhere or sometimes, has had the opportunity to show compassion to someone. It doesn’t have to be about death…it could be any loss someone has suffered. Perhaps it is a lack of education…I’m not sure what it is, but on a side-note…I received an email from the above “friend”…telling me how much she enjoyed our visit, wanting to come again & perhaps have lunch…signed with XXXXOOO. Not exactly what I was feeling.

    • Excellent comment. Thanks. I am saddened to hear about your loss and the lack of support from some of those around you. Unfortunately there are the people who find our grief experience too uncomfortable to hear and some who are only interested in their life situation.

  6. Anne Tallegrand says:

    After I loss my mom, suddenly in my twenties, when I needed her the most. I founnd that only tose who had loss in that similar, paticular way, actually knew how to approach me, it was not what they said, at ties it was, what thay did not say. I was angered many times, and quite frankly, I recall on many occasions, of me just not wanting to be comforted unless I knew the person intimately, or if the individual knew my mom, personally. 11 years later, the question “How did she die?” still makes me uncomfortable, I think it may be, because in my mind, that is so irrelevant, and this other question “How old was she?” lol, I don’t know, but it just stings, to go over details, as if her life can be, summed up or somehow, assessed, by this information. Well, Thank you for this forum, I ave only discussed this with my siblings. It gets better with time, but somehow it really does not. I miss her, and if I could, I’d bring her back….

  7. Ken Haney says:

    Is it fair to ask mourners to educate their would be comforters? I ask this sincerely since I have heard so many stories like yours. Is the problem a lack of compassion, insensitivity or just plain ignorance? Do you think it would have helped to explain to her that her questions were off target? Would you have been too angry to do it effectively? In my grief support group I’ve heard grievers say things to other grievers that made me catch my breath. It makes me wonder if anyone really knows what should be said. We just want to fix them and be done with it.

    • Yes, mourners can help those around them to know what they really need from them in support and encouragement. Trying to education someone while still stinging from the statement and angry may not be the best time to do so.

  8. Liz says:

    Thank you for sharing! As a young person trying to become a Funeral Director this is very helpful to me and I certainly hope that thinking about these questions will better allow me to be of comfort to a mourner and to do what I can to make their situation a little bit easier.

  9. Aura Truelove says:

    After my husband committed suicide, I quickly realized that people feel obligated to say SOMETHING, but due to their discomfort with the situation, often say something stupid, particularly in the case of suicide. So, I tried to be understanding and forgiving of that, but it certainly is hard. One thing I will say to those who find themselves in a situation where they are trying to provide comfort to someone grieving a death by suicide – don’t ask them why the person did it!! In the aftermath of suicide, those closest to the deceased are wracked with guilt and self-doubt because they didn’t see it coming, and therefore didn’t prevent it from happening. SO MANY people asked me this question, I considered getting myself a t-shirt that said “I DON’T KNOW WHY HE DID IT!” just to make this question stop! The other comment that will forever stay with me, was actually written on a card I received. It said “I’m so sorry for your loss – I only hope that God will forgive Mark for what he has done.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!! I tore it to pieces!! Thank you for this article – it has great insight. I am a hospice nurse and work as a clinical educator – I will share it with our staff.

  10. elainemansfield says:

    Thank you for this clear and personal piece. I facilitate groups and work with the bereaved at hospice and also continue to process my own grief after my husband’s death. But I still need to be mindful when I respond to people who call or come to my groups, because my reactions can either soothe or cut.. Recently a woman signed up for an up-coming group and gave me a long list of shattering losses over the phone. I had to stop myself from exclaiming how horrible it was and try to find a quiet place of response where I recognized her pain without adding my own to the mix. Thank you for articulating these questions I can ask myself..
    Gratefully, Elaine http://elainemansfield.com/

  11. Ronee Henson says:

    I’m a Hospice volunteer, and therefore not a stranger to the grief of those left behind.
    I find that giving a touch on the arm and a hug is more helpful than any words could be.

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  13. You missed the whole point of the article. Whether she was mourning or not, she did not think about her questions or statements before she asked them.

    • faerylandmom says:

      Me? I think I understand what you’re saying. I relate very much. Any of the comments starting with, “Well, at least…” seem to sting the most.

      • The one given me most was “At least you have other children….” Wow! Like each child doesn’t matter as valuable individuals that you love for their uniqueness.

  14. faerylandmom says:

    Thank you.

    I just lost my Daddy on December 10th. The mind-searing pain and sadness finally hit. Oh, I was sad before, but I had spent 3 1/2 months helping my mom care for him. I had to leave less than a week after the memorial service, to go back “home” – out of state. My mind and body dove back into “normal” as fast as possible. It wasn’t until the last month or so that everything came crashing down. I know what I’m feeling and dealing with now is “normal” for grief, but I hate it. I hate being here. I hate hurting so much. I hate missing my dad.

    And the comments I get from loving, kind people…sigh… In fact, I wrote a post about what I’m feeling, and the outpouring of love has been wonderful.

    Thank you for this post. THANK YOU. And God bless you.

    • Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your torture. I am sorry you lost your father, and hearing what you are going through emotionally saddens me tremendously. Blessings.

  15. melandry says:

    This was phenomenal. It was sobering to me. I have recently been corresponding with a young person who had a traumatic incident that shook up her relationship with her parents. My initial writing to her was very patronizing and prosecutorial in tone. I was trying to “fix” the problem. Later I asked for her forgiveness after I realized I needed to but myself in her shoes and show true empathy and respect for the difficulties this person was experiencing. Reading this article has confirmed that I need to think before speaking (or writing).

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