Talking to the Bereaved – Yes, It’s Okay!

For most people, initiating a conversation with the bereaved is one of the scariest, most intimidating, most anxiety producing tasks they can think of. So scary that most people don't do it, or they do it so badly they swear they never will again.

This only serves to promote the loneliness and isolation most bereaved people feel.

But, if you know how to begin, how to listen and how to end, then usually all you have to do is open your heart and react naturally like you would in any other conversation.

How To Begin

This is an example opening conversation that usually works. You may find a reluctant person occasionally, but usually when a bereaved person finds someone who really wants to listen, they really want to talk.

Try something like this:

You: Hi, this is _______, I just called to see how you are doing. Is this a good time to talk? (If the person you are talking to says no, then you can offer to back at a different time. Just letting them know you are willing to listen is often all the comfort they may need at the time.)

Bereaved: Yeah, it's fine.

You: So, how are you doing?

Bereaved: I'm okay.

You: How are you really doing?

Bereaved: I have my good days and bad days.

You: What's it like on the bad days?

Bereaved: I just keep going over and over what happened and wondering if I had done something differently if the outcome would have been different.

You: Like what?

Bereaved: Oh, I don't know. I am having a hard time thinking clearly about anything.

You: I hear that is normal. You must still be in shock. The whole thing must not seem real to you.

Bereaved: No, it doesn't. I can't believe he's gone.

You: How did it happen?

Bereaved: We were out having dinner...
Notice that all of the questions are open-ended and the one statement is empathetic and informational.

It is important to have natural reactions as well as questions so this conversation doesn't take on an interrogational quality. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a "yes" or "no". The quickest way to kill a conversation is to ask mostly closed-end questions - those that can be answered with a "yes" or "no".

Also, notice that in this short exchange you have communicated that you care - really care - how she is doing; that it is okay for them to tell their story; that you have time to listen and a little information about what is normal. If they want to talk, you will have to do little else than occasionally say a few words like "Oh" or "really" or "I can't believe that" or "what did you do then?" or "gosh, that must have been awful" or "how did you feel about that?" just to let the bereaved know that you are actively listening.

How To Listen

Before you call a bereaved person make sure you have enough time to listen. If you have a successful call and do a good job of listening, then the call could last up to an hour or more.

1. The first rule of good listening is to really try to imagine yourself in the their situation. Do this before you make the call and as you are listening.

2. If this person is not well known to you, use the person's name often to promote intimacy.

3. Use open-ended statements and questions as talked about in the above example.

4. If you are with the person, orient your body towards the person, talk from the same physical level, try not to cross your arms or legs, speak in a soft, relaxed, warm voice and make as much eye contact as the person is comfortable with.

5. Avoid giving advice or suggestions, even if asked. Just say something like "I don't know, what do you think you ought to do?"

6. Do not interrupt.

7. Do use active listening inserts like "Um", "Oh", "that's awful", "what did you do then", and "so, how did you feel about that", etc. This tells the person you are listening and want to continue to listen.

8. The bereaved should do almost all of the talking.

9. Allow silence to be a part of your conversation. Sometimes the bereaved may cry or have no words. They are not crying because you have upset them, but because you are allowing them to share their emotions. It is important that you don't try to stop them. Either be quiet or assure them they can take their time before continuing. Give them a hug if you are with them. If you try to fill that space, you tell them that you are uncomfortable with their very normal reactions.

How To End

Ending an emotional conversation gracefully can be very difficult. Hopefully, the bereaved will have a reason to end the conversation. If not, try to find a lull in the conversation and say something like "It sounds like you are doing as well as could be expected and I am really glad we've had this time to talk. I am so sorry you have to go through this, but I care about you and would like to call you again soon, if that would be okay with you." (Pause for response). "And, I hope you know that you can call me anytime. I know sometimes just talking out loud can help you sort out or organize some of your thoughts or feelings." You will find your own style on how to close, but this approach might help in the interim.

Much more could be said about technique and phraseology, but the purpose of this article is to relay the basics so you or someone you know will feel more comfortable making the call or visit, and so you will make the call. The bereaved often feel very isolated and alone because of our fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Even if you say the "wrong thing,” more likely than not the bereaved will only remember that you cared and you were there. The words, in the end, are often inconsequential as long as your intention is from the heart.