How to Avoid “Comforting” the Bereaved with Uncomforting Sayings

Announcement on March 22nd–Just in: on this date my post called Why I Am a Stuffed Shirt about Jeans at a Funeral is the top trending one in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The link is: http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/why_i_am_a_stuffed_shirt_about_jeans_at_a_funeral

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This week’s guest post is by professional listener  Mr. Marc Wong:

Have you ever found yourself tongue-tied, in the middle of an awkward silence, with someone else who is going through an emotional situation? In moments like these, it’s easy to say something wrong and make people feel worse.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to determine what to say. If you wouldn’t say it in a movie, then you shouldn’t say it to an upset friend.

Let me use one of my favorite movies to explain this. It’s called “A Few Good Men.” Jack Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for playing the arrogant Colonel Jessop in the movie. In the climactic courtroom scene at the end, he yells the famous line at Lieutenant Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise), “You can’t handle the truth!” Lieutenant Kaffee doesn’t back down. He bears down on Jessop, and ultimately gets him to confess to the crime.

But imagine if Colonel Jessop had simply said, “Maybe it was all for the best.”

And Lieutenant Kaffee agreed, “You’re right. Let’s just move on.”

And the jury returned a not guilty verdict for the wrongfully accused and the movie ended.

This vastly unsatisfying alternative ending helps to explain why we shouldn’t say certain things when we’re comforting someone (and in the case of the movie, confronting someone.). Karen Kaplan, in her Feb 16, 2015 interview on the Homestead Hospice radio show, explored the subject of how to listen to people who are grieving. A well-meaning person might say one of the following to their friend:

“At least they died peacefully.”

“Feel better. They’re not suffering anymore.”

And of course, “Maybe it was for the best.”

Unfortunately, these comments don’t honor the pain, suffering, confusion, and efforts of the grieving. Imagine the characters saying these things in the middle of a movie. It would never work. The comments come from nowhere and just throw you off.

You see, the delicate emotions we feel in a movie are similar to the real emotions that life thrusts upon us. What works or doesn’t work in movies is similar to what happens in life. We can’t magically make things better or help the process along with a few simple comments.

The truth is, these comments are more about our haste to put an upbeat spin on things, to end the awkwardness, or even to vent our own fears and confusion. But it’s tough for our friends to deal with our stuff on top of their own turmoil.

What we can do is to share the pain and discomfort. We can share the journey. We can offer a hug or other concrete assistance. If we really don’t know what to say, we can just keep quiet and be an audience, which is often more useful than we realize. We can walk by our friend’s side and allow them to discover at their own pace, their own dignity and courage.

—- Marc Wong helps people unleash the power of listening. Web: www.8steplisten.com Twitter: @8Steplisten (Twitter is how I originally met Marc. We share an interest in enabling compassionate listening.) Have a romp through his site to see some engaging graphics and more on his movie imagery.

Marc Wong, author of "Thank You for Listening: Gain Influence & Improve Relationships, Better Listening in 8 Steps".

Marc Wong, author of “Thank You for Listening: Gain Influence & Improve Relationships, Better Listening in 8 Steps”.

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