How we respond to someone opening up to us about their trauma and grief can have a big impact on both our relationship with that person and their healing process. We typically mean well in what we say to others; however, sometimes our own emotions and discomfort can take over and lead to hurtful statements. Here is a list of common, yet unhelpful, things we want to avoid saying to someone going through trauma and grief, along with better ways to be supportive.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I’m sorry you went through that.”
This is one of the most common phrases we say to someone who is going through a loss or traumatic event. Hallmark cards are full of these statements. When we are saying, “Sorry for your loss”, we are communicating sympathy. While we mean well by this, the brain translates this to being pitied and does not respond to this as well as statements of empathy. Our brains release feel-good chemicals when we receive empathy and validation. These chemicals can help with resiliency and healing.
“I know this is a really hard time, and I’m here for you.”
Only add the “I’m here for you” if you are truly capable of this. It is important to validate their emotions and show support. During traumatic events and grief, we can feel a variety of emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. All feelings are valid.
“It’s your fault.”
I have had many clients tell me about hearing this statement regarding their losses or their trauma. Even a friend of mine whose grandparent passed was told it was her fault. Sometimes, this is not the direct statement used. It may sound more like, “Well, what did you say to start the fight?”“What were you wearing the night you were assaulted” “Maybe if you had been where you said you would be, none of this would’ve happened."
“None if this was your fault.”
“It feels unfair.”
After a traumatic experience or loss, we tend to crave control and may place blame on ourselves to feel in control of the situation. Hearing this from someone else is important in reminding your loved one that they are not to blame and are not guilty.
“Isn’t it time to let it go/move on?”
Grief and trauma have no specific time limit. It is important to not guilt the person about their timeline and allow them to process when they are ready. The intensity of the trauma or loss, proximity, and relationship are just a few of the factors that may impact how long it takes for a person to process and grieve. It is normal for this to take a few months to a few years. Also, it is normal for various triggers to bring up feelings related to the trauma and loss. Remember that anniversary (no matter how long ago the loss or trauma occurred), new losses or traumatic events, and times of increased stress can trigger these feelings again.
“It takes time to heal.”
“It’s normal to feel this way.”
Normalizing a person’s feelings during their grief can help them feel understood. This also lets them know that you do not see them as a burden, which allows them to feel safe sharing their feelings with you.
“I know exactly what you are going through.”
This is another common statement where we mean well, yet it comes off the wrong way. We tend to share our own experiences to help our loved one feel understood and that we can truly empathize. There are occasions where this may be appropriate; however, try to avoid comparing your experiences to their own. Even though we may have experienced something familiar, we are not that person. Therefore, we cannot know exactly how they are experiencing this.
“I can only imagine what you are going through.”
Do your best to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes and genuinely show understanding and compassion the best you can. When we say, “I can imagine,” we are keeping in mind the person’s unique, personal experience.
If you catch yourself starting a statement like this, you are walking down a dangerous path of invalidation. We may be trying to lighten our loved one’s spirits or help them keep things in perspective. Asking “why” statements places blame on the survivor and will put a person in the defense mode. These statements lead to them feeling misunderstood and shameful about experiencing their feelings.
“I’m here, if or when you want to talk about it.”
Remember that the brain responds differently to trauma and loss. The brain wants us to survive and avoid pain, and it will do what it can to make that happen. Saying this statement gives the person some control over when they process their feelings. It creates a sense of safety in the relationship.
We want to try our best to separate our own feelings of powerlessness or insecurities when hearing about someone’s trauma and loss so that we can continue to be effective and helpful.
Sam Nabil was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English, The Washington post, The Boston Globe, Fatherly magazine, Women's health magazine, Cornell university , Yahoo News, USA Today, Marriage.com
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