Dealing with Loss: Helping people express their feeling so they don't explode

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 11:53
Posted in category Setting Goals

By Ellen H. Brown

If you have a friend or colleague who recently lost their job or is dealing with the loss of a loved one, do you listen when they talk about their feelings? Or do you quickly change the subject? I ask you this because in our culture, grief makes many people feel uncomfortable. And many of us don’t know what to say when people express their sadness or anger.

Recently, one of my clients told me an all too common story about the way people deal with sadness. While she was having lunch with one of her closest friends and telling her how hard it was to celebrate the holidays without her Dad, who had died a couple months earlier, her friend — instead of listening — abruptly changed the subject. My client felt angry and confused, and wanted to say something to her friend about how she felt, but didn’t want to “sound like a crybaby.”

My intent is not to judge people for the way they react to grief, but to encourage us to explore new options that allow our loved ones to feel heard and understood, by allowing them to express their feelings rather than shutting them down.

If you’re wondering why it’s important to express your feelings, here’s what the authors of the Grief Recovery Handbook have to say on the subject:  “When we bottle up feelings caused by loss, it is the same as starting the timer of a time bomb. In the beginning the bomb ticks softly. The ticks represent problems, which are experienced by grievers who don’t know how to successfully grieve. It’s as if each one of these signs of trouble are ticks of the bomb progressively getting closer to exploding.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m in favor of dismantling the “bomb” by helping people release their feelings, rather than waiting for the bomb to explode.

So, what can we say that allows people to open up rather than closing down? Here are some possible words to consider using, if someone is dealing with a recent loss:

  • How are you doing since (fill in the name of the loved one) died or since you lost your job?
  • If you want to talk, I’m interested in listening.
  • I can’t imagine what you must be going through.
  • I know this has been a difficult time for you (only say this if you know that that’s the case).
  • I’m here for you, if you want to talk about it.

Sometimes, when a friend tells you she’s having a hard time dealing with her loss, simply saying “I’m so sorry” can give her the space to talk about what she’s experiencing. But the trick is to give her the space and listen, without saying something that presumes you DO know how she’s feeling, or how she should feel. While I know that many of us are trying to make the person who is grieving feel better, by saying things like “you should feel grateful because he’s in a better place,” these phrases often shut the person down, making him believe that his feelings are wrong, or worse yet, that it isn’t okay for him to talk about his feelings.

Since many of us have trouble dealing with death or any kind of loss, and have misguided beliefs about grieving and how long it should take, we can’t expect ourselves to become experts at supporting people overnight. But if we are willing to sit with our own uncomfortable feelings when we witness deep emotion in our loved ones, we have a better chance of helping them heal.

How do you respond when people start discussing a recent loss in their life?

I’d love to hear what you have to say. Please join in the conversation by leaving a comment (by scrolling down) here on Stepping Stones.

Are you dealing with a recent loss or struggling with another life transition? If so, I’d love to help out. Visit my website at to sign up for an introductory session or a coaching package that’s right for you. Since coaching sessions are conducted by phone, I can work with clients anywhere in the world.

Ellen H. Brown is a certified professional coach based in Cleveland, Ohio.

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7 Responses to “Dealing with Loss: Helping people express their feeling so they don't explode”

  1. Thomas Waterhouse says:

    December 9th, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    I think our culture has become so “psychologized” that we’re paralyzed in the face of grief “because we’re not “qualified” to deal with it. Of course, when we encounter grieving, it subtly and not so subtly activates the pain of our own buried losses. I have long said that “Life is a series of ‘Hellos’ and ‘Goodbyes’, and the sooner we learn to do it gracefully, the better”. I also say, “All of life is grieving” and so I applaud your work and great article! Thank you Ellen, and blessings upon what you do!

  2. Ellen Brown says:

    December 9th, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, Thomas! I think you are SO right that the pain of others activates our own buried pain. That is such an important point … Everything in life is certainly impermanent, as you point out. And I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. But I know that, as you so beautifully said, “Life is a Series of Hellos and Goodbyes” and “all of life is grieving.” And when we allow our feelings to move through us, we truly do heal. Thank you for your kind words about my work and my article. I appreciate it more than you know.

  3. Sharon says:

    December 10th, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    Great article. I have an artist friend who says that “death is the new sex” – meaning that it used to be that it was forbidden to talk about sex; now the most intimate sexual details are strewn hither, thither and you; however, it is verboten to speak about death.

  4. Ellen Brown says:

    December 11th, 2009 at 6:34 am

    What an interesting observation, Sharon! Come to think about it there are a number of topics like sex that used to be forbidden that are now discussed openly. But death certainly isn’t one of them. Our culture has such an interesting relationship with death, or should I say a non relationship. Thank you for your feedback!

  5. Carla says:

    December 13th, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Hi Ellen! It’s really great to have come across your blog and I enjoyed your article. As I go along my journey, I really relate to what Thomas said, that life is a series of hellos and goodbyes. I also think that even in the midst of a healthy relationship, growth requires letting go of how things “were” and embracing how the relationship is changing as each person grows and changes. It’s difficult to embrace the new without letting go of the old. A kind of grieving process that opens life up to deeper levels of fulfillment. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  6. Ellen Brown says:

    December 14th, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Hi Carla,

    I so appreciate your comment and love what you said about relationships and growth and the need to let go of the old. In any transition, we need to let go of the old to make room for something new. And sometimes that is easier said than done. Thank you for your comment and for “stopping by.” I hope you’ll come back, again.


  7. Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker says:

    June 13th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Any change, even good change, brings loss. Loss brings grief. When one of my best friends died almost 5 years ago, I didn’t want to hear, “She is in a better place.” I wanted her here with me. I wanted her counsel, her friendship, her voice, her wisdom, her physical body here for me and with me. I know I was being selfish at the time but that is what death does to a person. I missed her so badly. She died of a heart attack just after midnight on the morning of December 1. I think not getting to say good-bye to someone makes the grieving worse.

    I was then and still am blessed with several friends who have always been there for me through good times and bad times. We talked to each other and helped each other get through the loss of our friend. Grieving doesn’t have a time table that says it is going to be over this week or this month or even this year. It is different for each of us.

    I have a friend who grieved every year for the death of her father over 40 years ago. She skipped a few years recently and then this year she really cried and needed to talk about him. He died when she was 12 years old. One of the best times to show that you are a real friend is when someone is grieving and just needs someone to listen. Some of you may think that 40 years is a long time to grieve and I agree to a point. My friend is a drama queen and that is just the way she is. I don’t condemn her for it and I don’t help her wallow in her drama. I am sometimes able to gently guide her to the other side. Sometimes I just watch her go through it. Either way moving through the feelings is the only way to heal. One of these days, on her time schedule, not mine, she will reach the other shore.

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