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The art of consoling

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PROVIDING COMFORT Right words can help tide over grief
PROVIDING COMFORT Right words can help tide over grief

Words are powerful. They can lift people's spirits or push them into darkness. So, exercise caution when you console people

Rushing to the hospital, Ambika Ramakrishnan found a group of relatives standing around the bed in silence. Her cousin had lost her only daughter to dengue and seemed to be in shock. Ambika quickly went to her, called her gently by name and put her arm around her shoulder. "She shook with tears," said Ambika, a long time teacher and counsellor. "And you know what she said? 'I heard them say things like, why I should be spared when the young girl was taken. No one understood what I was going through. Am I guilty? I couldn't even cry.' It's better to keep quiet than say hurtful things."

Celebration is easy

The hip-hip-hurray of celebration comes easily to us. We have standard words for greeting good news. But do we know what to say when a friend tells us her husband got laid off? Her marriage is over? Had to shut down her business? When someone's recovering from major surgery? Rarely. When informed a student had lost her mom, a group of teachers stood around and wondered, "What do we tell her?"

Word power

Words are powerful. They can lift our spirits, provoke thoughts, touch us deeply. Right words can reassure us; help us tide over overwhelming grief. Yet, we manage to make our worst gaffes just when we should be finding words that calm and comfort, when we should be offering a verbal tissue to wipe tears. Consoling is an art that must be learned and practised. We know because we have been at the receiving end of tactless speech. "Stay with the bereaved people for a while," advises Br. Victor, a pastor. He reads to them from the Bible. "Encourage them to talk. Give total attention till they unburden their sorrow. Interrupt only for short, fitting responses. When they finish, tell them you understand how difficult it must be for them. Be sincere in all you say. If you feel helpless, that's exactly what you should be conveying." He also wants us to pay a second visit. "Once I was talking to a young man who had lost his job. His friends came in and said it was all his fault. There couldn't be fire without smoke. I just had to ask them to leave."

Lend comfort

Dr. Vijai P. Sharma, a clinical psychologist often meets people angry and hurt over words friends or relatives said to them in sympathy. The words were meant to comfort but they managed to aggravate grief. "People struggle with the question of right words," he said. "They admit, 'I haven't called on him/her, I don't know what to say.'" Here is his list of "should-avoid" speeches. "I know how you feel." No you don't, unless you have gone through the same trauma. Say, "I can't even imagine (or I can only imagine) what you must be feeling." Mourner says, "Dad was eighty-two." Correct response: "You always miss them when they're gone." "You know he (or she) wouldn't have wanted you to feel this way." What you are saying is: "You cry and you're doing something against the wishes of your loved one." Avoid sending the bereaved on a guilt trip."You may not believe it now, but you'll get over it." This is true, but this is not the time for raw truth. The person will resent it if he is thinking nothing can fill the void. Say that after a time."It was just his (or her) time to go. Good he was not aware of the end." The bereaved may not see it that way. If he blames himself, say some things are not in our control. "You're strong enough to deal with it." Who are you to say that? Mourning is not about how much strength the mourner has. Try instead, "May you get the strength to bear your loss." Not sure of what to say? Hold their hand. The golden rule is to say 'I'm sorry' and allow them to talk. Get them to share their memories. Tell them it's okay to cry. Ask them how you can help. Just be there for them. Each person has his own way coping with loss. Eventually, relate your fond memories of the deceased. Wear something suitable. A grieving person may not appreciate a ritzy sari and a reeking perfume.

Listen to them

"I noticed the pain in the eyes of a fellow traveller," said Ambika. "I helped her with her luggage and offered her my lower berth. She was going to Guruvayur after her husband's death. She narrated her story. I said, "Think of the happy times you had with your husband. Think of him as your guardian angel." When she left, she said, "I feel relieved. It's like I've already visited the temple. You console to help people rise from distress, not push them into darkness."

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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