Most people struggle with knowing how to deal with and help others when life is disrupted by trauma, tragedy, loss or death. In fact, people often feel immobilized, uncomfortable, hesitant and uneasy. The fear of saying or doing the wrong thing can be paralyzing, but it’s essential to break through these barriers and offer genuine support.
The ongoing situation in Israel is incredibly distressing and traumatic for people living in Israel and for relatives and friends abroad. In the face of terrorism and threats in Israel and antisemitism throughout the world, people are experiencing a wide range of intense emotions, including immobilizing fear, heartbreak, anguish, confusion, uncertainty, shock, numbness, anger, panic, worry, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, devastation and guilt, as well as physical symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, nightmares, nausea, loss of appetite, aches and pains.
Trauma, loss and grief are profoundly complex human experiences—almost impossible to describe—and each has its own unique impact on individuals. When people are paralyzed by these emotions, offering support becomes even more critical.
It is hard to know what to say or do, and often people are afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing or making the person feel even worse. While you can’t (and you shouldn’t want to) take away the pain of the loss, you can provide much-needed comfort and support. There are many ways to help a grieving friend or family member, starting with letting the person know you care. Often, he or she feels isolated and alone (and some would say they are seeing themselves from outside their body, and that nothing feels real—almost like it is a terrible nightmare), but kindness and having people to lean on can be very helpful.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel or respond to trauma or death. Be aware of your own reactions and feelings, as well as the reactions and feelings of others. And don’t tell anyone what they should be thinking, feeling or doing.
- Fear of saying the wrong thing
- Concern about increasing the anxiety and sadness
- Uncertainty regarding emotional reactions
- Get comfortable with your discomfort! Don’t let your discomfort prevent you from reaching out
- Most people think there is someone else, more equipped, around the corner
When supporting someone in grief or trauma, remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Here are some key principles to keep in mind:
By being a compassionate listener, validating their emotions and offering practical support, you can help your friends and relatives navigate this challenging and uncertain time. Your presence and empathy can make a significant difference.
It’s essential to remember that supporting someone during times of fear and uncertainty is an ongoing process. Keep checking in on their well-being and be ready to adapt your support as their needs change. Maintain regular contact with them through calls, texts or video chats. Your presence, understanding and care, even if it’s virtual, can offer much-needed comfort and a sense of connection during these challenging times.
In The Event of Death—What to Say and What Not to Say
What to say:
- “I am so sad to hear…”
- When talking about death, use the word “died”. The word “died” reflects a level of honesty about the reality of the situation, and shows that you are more open to talking about how the person really feels.
- “I don’t know what to say… but I want you to know that I care.” Let them talk about how his or her loved one died. People may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death.
- “Is there anyone you need me to call?”
- “I would love to hear about ___. Tell me about him/her.” Well-meaning people steer away from and avoid talking about the deceased person, but the bereaved need to feel that his or her loss is acknowledged, and his or her loved one won’t be forgotten. Encourage them to tell you stories and share some positive memories about the person who died.
- Nothing at all. Silence is golden. Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand or a reassuring hug. Knowing how to listen is much more important than knowing what to say. Listen way more than you normally would—you don’t even have to respond. Just standing in the fire with them is helpful. Be with them. Be human. Your mere presence is comforting.
Knowing what not to say or do is equally important:
- “I’m sorry”: Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” which can come across as a generic response, use more personalized and empathetic language. Express your sadness or sorrow genuinely.
- “I know how you feel” or “I get it”: Avoid claiming to understand the exact emotions of the grieving person, and refrain from comparing their grief to your own experiences. A more empathetic approach is to acknowledge the difficulty they’re going through by saying, “This must be so difficult.”
- “I know how hard this is”: In their eyes, you don’t know how hard it is. Grief is a highly individual experience influenced by various factors. Instead of making assumptions about their feelings, gently invite them to express their emotions when appropriate.
- “You are going to be okay”: It’s better not to assure the grieving individual that everything will be okay. While it’s normal to experience various difficult emotions, let them know that these feelings are natural. Offer support and kindness.
- “Time heals all wounds. This grief will pass”: Avoid suggesting that time alone will heal the pain of grief. Grief is a unique journey, and it doesn’t simply “pass.” Loss does not happen and then unhappen. Instead, reassure them that the intensity of the pain may lessen over time.
- “This is all part of God’s plan”: It’s best not to invoke religious or philosophical explanations for the person’s suffering, as many individuals may not find solace in such statements.
- “He or she is in a better place”: Whether someone believes this or not is a matter of personal faith, so it’s not advisable to make such assumptions.
- “It takes about a year to heal”: Grief does not have a fixed timeline, and healing is a gradual process. People must be allowed to experience their feelings without pressure, judgment or embarrassment. Reassure them that it’s acceptable to be patient and let the grieving process unfold naturally.
- “At least he or she is not suffering”: Avoid saying this, and only agree with it if the bereaved person brings it up themselves. Let them initiate this perspective.
- “At least you have the rest of your family”: It’s not helpful to bring up other positive aspects of their life when they are focused on their loved one’s death, especially with statements that start with “At least.” In fact, never start a sentence with “at least”.
- “Try to be positive”: Unsolicited advice, especially suggesting they look at the positive side, can be insensitive and dismissive of the person’s grief and emotions. In fact, hold off on the unsolicited advice!
- Praise for being “strong”: Don’t pressure or encourage them to be strong and courageous. Don’t encourage them to put on a brave front. Crying and feeling sad, frightened and upset is a normal reaction to loss, and it doesn’t mean that the person is weak. Likewise, grieving individuals may pretend to be fine on the outside, while suffering on the inside, as a way of protecting their loved ones from seeing them upset. Don’t make assumptions based on someone’s outward appearance. Avoid saying things like “you are so strong” or “you look like you are doing well” as such praise can create pressure to keep up appearances and hide their true feelings.
- Avoiding or dodging the bereaved: Don’t treat the grieving individual as if they are contaminated or contagious. Be present and offer your support without distancing yourself.
- Falling into the “fix-it” trap: Refrain from trying to fix the situation for the grieving individual. Your role is not to fix the reality but to provide support as they navigate their grief and acknowledge their pain.
- Be a “story topper”: A story topper is someone who tops every situation or story with one they feel will make them sound like they have been through the same loss or, in some cases, something worse. They immediately find a way to take the focus off others and onto themselves. Avoid the tendency to top others’ stories with your own experiences, even if you think your ordeal was more significant or similar. This can make mourners feel obligated to comfort you instead.
Understanding trauma, loss and grief—while offering care, respecting individual responses, overcoming barriers and avoiding common pitfalls—can help you provide meaningful support during these difficult times.
Lynda Fishman is a registered social worker in private practice, retired college professor, motivational and inspirational speaker and facilitator. She has published articles and training manuals on leadership, teamwork, bullying, trust, childhood health and wellness, communication and customer service. She is the author of Repairing Rainbows, in which she candidly describes her own trauma as her mother and two sisters were killed in an Air Canada plane crash when she was just 13 years old. She can be reached at [email protected].