Beyond condolences, how can we best support a grieving friend? Grief counsellor Andrea Warnick tells us what to say and do, and what to avoid. For example: yes, use the “D” word; and do not try to “fix” it. The grieving process is not linear. Rather, it is like a squiggly line. So what should a good friend do? Most importantly, “show up”!
- 10 Key Learnings – What to Consider & What to Say
- References & Links
- Andrea’s Commentary
- Interview Transcript
10 Key Learnings
WHAT TO CONSIDER
- Grieving is not a linear step-by-step process.
- Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s model of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – was actually meant for the dying (not the grievers). Research shows that the process is not linear. Rather, it is more like a squiggly line.
- If you are celebrating someone’s life, try to make room for the grief too. It will come out at some point.
- Everyone is different.
- Children experience and demonstrate their grief differently than adults. It is not uncommon for children to jump back and forth from deep sorrow to playing blissfully with their friends. That is completely normal.
- Some people physically exhibit their grief and others are very private about it.
- Some people may be intuitive in their grieving process, and others are more instrumental – they need frameworks.
- We can think about a hierarchy of sympathy to empathy to COMPASSION.
- Sympathy is better than nothing. But empathy is better. And compassion is ideal. We should seek to be compassionate with our grieving friends.
- Don’t try to save the person. “Don’t fall into the fixit trap.”
- Rather, show up and be there for the person. Just to sit and talk. Or maybe even just to sit.
- Don’t worry about making the person feel sad. They are already sad.
- The only thing worse than talking about the person who died is forgetting about the person. Talking doesn’t make it worse.
WHAT TO SAY
- DO NOT say “at least they aren’t suffering anymore.” And do not say “thank goodness you have other children.”
- As Andrea says – “NOT helpful.” There is no silver lining. These things don’t make the grief any less.
- If the griever wants to frame it that way, it is up to them. Do not offer that.
- So what DO you say? Well, like Andrea said, you need to SHOW UP.
- Start with: I’m here for you if you want to talk.
- Now. Or tomorrow. Or next month. Or next year.
- Unless they tell you otherwise, do not hesitate to use the D words: dying, death, died.
- There are over 240 euphemisms for death in the English language. Using words like “Lost” or passed are just wrong and sometimes confusing.
- Ask your friend to share a story about the person who died.
- It could be “I never met your grandmother. Tell me about her.” Or if you did meet her, you could say “tell me again about the time…” Many people who are grieving find some relief in telling a story about the person.
References & Links
- AndreaWarnick.com – Grief counselling – https://andreawarnick.com/
- Andrea’s affiliations
- The Dr. Jay Children’s Grief Program- https://drjaychildrensgriefcentre.ca/
- Camp Erin (overnight bereavement camp) – https://drjaychildrensgriefcentre.ca/programs/camp-erin/
- SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health – https://www.sickkidscmh.ca/
- Ontario’s Children & Youth Grief Network – https://www.childrenandyouthgriefnetwork.com/
- The Canadian Virtual Hospice (CVH) – http://www.virtualhospice.ca/en_US/Main+Site+Navigation/Home.aspx
- KidsGrief.ca- https://kidsgrief.ca/
Other Resources & References
- TEDTalk –
- Brené Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability” – https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en
- “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” – https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/american-public-media/terrible-thanks-for-asking
- Esther Perel, “Where do we begin” – https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/where-should-we-begin-with-esther-perel/id1237931798
- Kenneth Doka & Terry Martin, Instrumental vs Intuitive grieving styles – https://whatsyourgrief.com/grief-and-gender-a-preamble/ and http://www.giftoflifeinstitute.org/instrumental-and-intuitive-grievers/
- Megan Devine newsletter – https://www.refugeingrief.com/newsletter-thanks/
Talk About Talk
Dr. Andrea’s Commentary
Today we are talking about “how to support our grieving friends.” — What to say to our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, when they’re in mourning. When they have lost someone important to them. When they are so sad that we might be afraid to say the wrong thing.
After listening to this podcast, you will have a much better idea about what to say and what to do.
I recently spent an hour in the office of a Registered Psychotherapist named Andrea Warnick. Andrea was recommended to me by my dear friend Suzanne, whose husband Harold died a few years ago.
Notice that I just used the D word – “died.” More on that in a minute.
Anyway, Suzanne recommended Andrea Warnick to me as a guest expert for the Talk About Talk listeners to learn how to support their grieving friends. What to say, what to do, and what not to say and do. Well, let me say, Andrea blew me away. She definitely exceeded my expectations. Thank you Suzanne and thank you Andrea!
I promise you will feel better equipped to support your grieving friends after listening to this. Now, I’m going to introduce Andrea Warnick. After the interview, I will summarize her main points for us. You don’t need to take notes! The summary will be available for you in the shownotes. If you go to TalkAboutTalk.com and click on PODCASTS, you will see the shownotes there.
Let me introduce Andrea Warnick.
Andrea is a Registered Psychotherapist whose passion lies in helping families and communities support people of all ages who are grieving the illness or death of someone close to them. With a degree in nursing, a master’s degree in Thanatology (that is, the study of dying and death) and years of nursing and counselling in Canada and abroad, Andrea brings to her work a rare mixture of medical and psycho-social expertise. Over the years, Andrea has served as a counsellor, director, teacher, clinical team member, and/or project lead at:
- the Jay Children’s Grief Program
- a free overnight bereavement camp called Camp Erin
- The SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health
- Ontario’s Children and Youth Grief Network
- The Canadian Virtual Hospice (or CVH), and
In addition to her education and consulting work, Andrea has grief counselling practices in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario.
I met Andrea in her Toronto office.
Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you very much for taking the time. So, I thought I would start by asking you about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stage model, because when I think about a friend or a family member who’s going through grief, my mind goes there.
Andrea Warnick: Absolutely. Kubler Ross is a great place to start. So yeah, when Kubler Ross did develop her model, (and there’s even controversy around that and whose model it actually was originally), but, you know, it was designed for people who were dying. And to be honest, I think Kubler Ross did some wonderful things for the field of death and dying. It was at a time when the people who were dying were located very far from the nursing stations. The isolation was profound. We have moved very far from death, being in the home to being highly medicalized event, very isolating. And she really taught people that if you want to learn from people who are dying, you need to talk to people who are dying. And I think there was a lot of great things that came out of that. Okay. The problem with a five-stage model is it’s very simplistic, even for the person who’s dying.
Wojnicki: It’s very linear.
Warnick: I think that people like it because it neatens grief up. And our brains like that. We want it to be a neat process where we start here, and we end at acceptance. My concern with the five-stage model is that it leaves a lot of people feeling as though they’re failing at grief because it’s not neat and tidy. And one day where maybe they’re feeling a little bit of acceptance or, you know, some joy in their life and the next day is a complete mess and they’re feeling angry. I find that a lot of people end up being very judgmental about their grief process. And they’re judging themselves and other people are judging them, and they know other people are judging him. Yeah. And a lot of people feel like they haven’t done it right. And they didn’t land on acceptance. I think it was far too simplistic and people love the idea. But the reality is like a lot of people in the thanatology community, the death community, are really working hard to make sure it’s erased from textbooks that it’s not showing up anymore, because it is setting up a lot of people to feel like they are failures. In terms of the grief process, well, when I’m teaching, I’ll often reference it. But I’ll show people like a big scribble, have a there’s a whole lot more stages and a whole lot more feelings and everything else. I don’t even know that we should call them stages.
Wojnicki: So my objective here is to help the listeners have something in their mind – it could be just a few points that will help them feel better equipped to support their friends or family members who are grieving someone. One of the other things that I found really interesting is avoiding the word death when we’re talking about death. So, so we use metaphors, right? And then we use the word “passed” or “lost” instead of died.
Wojnicki: Can you talk a little bit about that?
Warnick: Yeah, language is so powerful, right? And we’ve shown that the more uncomfortable we are with the topic as a society, the more euphemisms we’re going to have. My understanding is that in the English language has over 240 euphemisms for death and dying.
Warnick: So that’s how uncomfortable we are. And I always use the word death, dying, died. There’s a couple reasons for that. I mean, one, I work with a lot of families who have young children who have had someone die in their life as well. Totally confusing for kids, when they hear people saying like, “oh, dad passed away,” it’s completely abstract for them. Or “we lost Grandpa.” The number of kids that had jumped up and start looking for their lost person who’s actually died. Well, kids lose things all the time and find them again. But even adult-to-adult, I find that by using the actual words of death and dying, it shows that I’m comfortable with the topic, right? And it calls it what it is – and not skirting around it. You know, some people aren’t comfortable with the topic, but still calling it death and dying can show the other person that you’re really willing to show up and talk about what’s happened. So when I write condolence letters now, I never say like “passed away,” or “passed on.” I’ll be like, “I was really sad to hear your dad died.”
Wojnicki: I think the assumption there is that the receiver of the information – the griever – doesn’t want to hear that? Is that a fair assumption?
Warnick: I don’t want to suggest that everybody does. So I work with some families who have said like, Oh, well we prefer the language of “passed away.” And if a family that I’m supporting says that, then I will use that. Far more people have said “thank you for calling it what it actually is.” And my background was also oncology nursing and palliative care nursing – and nowhere do I still find it more challenging to use the language then when I’m talking to someone who is dying themselves. But even in those situations, I’ve had numerous people say, “you’re the only healthcare provider I’ve worked with who has used the D word.” Everybody else, even in the palliative care ward, nobody’s calling it death and dying. I think that the medical system, and physicians and nurses, are no exception to the sort of death phobia that we experience in this culture, where people are uncomfortable with it.
Wojnicki: But I think also to be fair to physicians giving the news – sometimes people are like, you’re being way too blunt with me.
Warnick: It’s not going to be what works for one person works for everyone. But overall, I mean, we’ve got research on this, we need to call it Death and Dying. I work with a lot of people who aren’t even clear about the fact that somebody is dying in the family because none of the physicians have used that language. I know even my own father was dying and he had a progressive disease that definitely was going to result in death. But when we went to do advanced care planning with him, he was very much under the impression that he wouldn’t die from it. He would just stay in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Because his physician – he was the specialist – he never used the word “death.” He never said, “you will die from this.” The person who’s done so much work in this is Atul Gawande.
Wojnicki: Oh, yeah, right!
Warnick: He is a role model and I mean, he and his parents, they could not even figure out his dad’s prognosis despite 150 years collectively of medical experience. Yeah. So I think language is important, but it’s not just about health care, it’s friends being able to call it what it is. Sometimes using the word death or died, it feels a little bit jarring.
Wojnicki: And I think people are trying to soften it, right?
Warnick: But from a therapeutic level, calling it what it is in the big picture is actually helpful. It minimizes confusion as well. And you know, if the person is having a hard time because they’re grieving, then hopefully we’re able to just show up for them in that space and let it be hard.
Wojnicki: So that is a beautiful segue to my next question, which is perhaps the most important question that I have for you. When we’re trying to support a grieving friend, we’re really afraid that what we’re going to say is going to backfire. So I’m hearing one piece of advice is to use the word death or dying, and then maybe to sense whether the person wants to talk?
Warnick: One of the most important approaches is to not fall into the fixit trap.
Warnick: Don’t try to fix it. Don’t try to minimize the person’s grief.
Wojnicki: Sometimes I find that the fear for people is that I might say the wrong thing. So instead I’d rather not say anything at all. I can tell you that’s what happened to me personally, and I have the very best of intentions.
Warnick: Yeah, absolutely.
Wojnicki: I don’t think I’m trying to save myself. I really am trying to save them. But the truth is, when someone’s died, you can’t fix it. Right?
Warnick: You can’t fix it. And that’s where most people will welcome somebody even coming up and saying, I don’t know what to say. Or I wish I knew what to say. Right? Or just I’m here for you. This is really hard. There are no words. What people tend not to appreciate, and I can speak from personal experience myself, as well, is when people try to say, “Well, you know, at least he’s not suffering anymore,” or find a silver lining. Absolutely.
anything with “at least,” I tell people: just stop right there. Don’t let it leave your mouth. Right.
Wojnicki: I have to say I think I’ve heard – to play the devil’s advocate here (maybe the wrong term in this context), but, at least he or she isn’t suffering. I’ve heard that from the mourner or the grievers.
Warnick: Absolutely. So this is where I’m glad you said that because the nuance here is, if the person in the epicenter of their grief, the person closest to the person who died, is saying that are feeling that and I most certainly did feel that with my dad. Absolutely.
Warnick: But we need to differentiate that we don’t say it to anybody else to try to make them feel better.
Warnick: So very much that is a lot of people’s experience. But what doesn’t help is when other people are trying to make them feel better by saying it, right. It might be what they’re feeling, and it might not be. But for sure when an individual is grieving, they’re welcome to tell other people that this is some of you know, grace that they found in it, or this is some of the comforting thoughts they found in it that their person is not suffering and things like that.
Wojnicki: So don’t try to prescribe anything or fill in or even offer suggestions for how they could or should reconcile?
Warnick: Absolutely. Just be there. Just show up. I mean, I think showing up is one of the most important things we can do – even if it’s awkward, even we don’t know what to say, show up. But don’t tell them how to feel. And don’t try to find the silver lining. The number of grieving parents I’ve worked with who have had people say to them, well, at least you have other children. Not helpful. It doesn’t make the grief any less for the child who died. That parent probably does have days where they’re deeply grateful for the fact that they have other children, (which again, it’s that nuance). They’re allowed to feel that way. But nobody else should be telling them that. Try to make them feel more okay with this horrible thing that has happened in their life.
Wojnicki: So I have a line that I’ve used with the best of intentions in many condolence cards. I want you to tell me what you think of this. I’ll put something personal in there. And then I’ll say, “I hope that someday soon, when you think of this person, instead of being so sad and crying, that the thought of the person makes you smile.” So what do you think of that?
Warnick: You know, I think is lovely. I think that, I mean, that kind of captures the complexity of grief right there. And I will often talk to people about that. I will talk about the fact that you know, that first time you see that picture that you haven’t seen since your mom died, it can feel like a kick in the gut. And you know, the way grief works, that exact same picture that can be such a source of pain initially, once you’ve seen it a few times, it very much can be that it’s a source of comfort. So I think that absolutely, really is representative of how grief often does work. I would just encourage you to, you know, also make space for the hard feelings in between. Often when people are in the trenches, it’s hard for them to believe that that could even be true, right?
Warnick: And that’s where just saying like I am here for you if you ever want to talk, I actually find one of the most helpful things is to ask people to talk about the person who died. So like, “I didn’t get to know your dad, but I would have loved to know your dad, I’d love to hear stories about your dad.” And there’s this beautiful saying by a bereaved parent, and it says, you know, “mentioned my child’s name, and I may cry, but don’t mention my child’s name and you’ll break my heart.”
Warnick: So it’s so true of often people aren’t bringing up the person who died because we’re worried we’re going to make the person sad.
Wojnicki: You don’t want to make it, I don’t want to make it worse.
Warnick: Yeah, exactly.
Wojnicki: And sometimes by saying nothing, you’re telling me that I actually am making it worse.
Warnick: Yes. Right. And that’s where, so, you may mention the name of the person who died, say, you know, I’ve been thinking about them recently. Their person may start crying. You’ve not made them more sad than they already were.
Warnick: You know, you’re giving them a chance for the emotions to come to the surface. Hopefully, you can just be there, and bear witness them, even if you’re not saying anything. But the thing that for most people is the most frightening is the idea that their person will be forgotten. You know, and as somebody who’s also worked sort of at the bedside with people who are dying, there’s a lot of people who are dying, who are also worried about being forgotten, right? And that’s where I find it so important that we keep talking to people about their person who died. And families, if a grandfather died before the kids, grandkids were ever born. It’s now everybody else’s responsibility to make sure those grandkids know the grandfather, right? And that they’re a part of their life. And there’s other cultures that do this much better than we do.
Wojnicki: So let’s talk about that for a minute. Because I find it fascinating that in our culture, and I know we are a diverse culture, especially here in Toronto, but generally speaking, mourning is a solemn and private thing, versus other cultures where the dead are literally celebrated. Right? Can you talk about that?
Warnick: Absolutely. I mean, I think if you go to Mexico around the Day of the Dead, and the day before is the day where all children who have died in a community are celebrated in grief, right? The act of cooking food that the person used to love, bringing it to the cemetery. I mean, anyone has been to a Mexican cemetery can see that they are so much more inhabited than our cemeteries, with candles, pictures, flowers everywhere, very colorful. But most of the towns have, you know, altars in the middle of towns, most homes have altars in their homes as well. So they have very much public spaces for grieving. And I’d say as diverse as we are, for most of us in Canada as well in the United States, if we go back a couple generations, wherever our families came from, we probably had a lot more rituals and ways to connect with our dead than we do now.
Wojnicki: So why do you think that is? Are we, is it because it’s too sad? Or because it’s a taboo thing?
Warnick: I think that’s a part of it. But I think also, you know, not as many people are connected to religious institutions in the same way. A lot of times those rituals would come from religious institutions. So I think that that’s part of it as well. And that’s where I find a lot of my work in supporting people who are grieving is helping them develop rituals. What does it look like to connect with my dad? Not just six months after he died, 6 years after he died, what do we do on his birthday?
Warnick: Right. When do we talk about him? It’s not just a sentiment thing that we keep talking about our dad, it’s a responsibility, you know, your responsibility to care for your ancestors. But you know, whether it’s religious or not, a lot of people who have a sense of an ongoing spirit of consciousness or whatever it is, and then that actually brings it to, there’s another aspect of it, which is still caring for the person and figuring out what does that look like, without a whole lot of guideposts and how to do that.
Wojnicki: do you have an opinion about whether we should be more public about this?
Warnick: One of the things that we’re contending with right now is – there’s been this effort to sort of bypass the sad in the grief and to go straight into celebrating people. But what I really learned is that, if we don’t do the grief, if we don’t do the mourning, allowing ourselves to be heartbroken, then you know, the celebration only holds us for so long. And I work with a lot of people who look back and wish six months or years down the line. They’re like, I wish I had more time to actually mourn with my community.
Wojnicki: I’ve heard of people who are very, very sick saying that they do not want a funeral. Right. And they want, if anything, a party. Yeah. So it’s even coming from that side.
Warnick: Absolutely. And that’s where I work with a lot of people after their person who has died and try to help them understand that likely the person who died wanted what is ever going to be best for their loved ones. Right? And their intention was very well meaning in that they just didn’t want them to be sad. Right. But it may be misguided. And that’s where I find, you know, if we kind of unpack some of that, not just say don’t have the party, but even in having the party, I say, make some room at the party for some of the grief some of the heartbreak, to come to the surface together, put on that song that you know, is going to bring the emotion out, put on the slide show, do the candle lighting, and ask for a couple moments of silence. Yeah, right, but make some room for the grief. Because in the big picture, I really think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by pushing the grief and the hard feelings and the sorrow to the fringes.
Wojnicki: That sounds like such fabulous advice, because otherwise where my mind goes is, all these people then go home. And they feel guilty because they’re still feeling sad. And then it becomes this private thing that’s digging their insides out, right?
Warnick: Absolutely. It makes for a healthier process when we can do it in community. And it doesn’t mean it all has to be done in community. I think. Throughout the ages, grief has always been hard, right? We’re designed as human beings to be able to do heartbreak and experience profound amounts of heartbreak and survive it.
Wojnicki: that’s very empowering.
Warnick: Actually. I think we need to remind ourselves of that sometimes. But I find now we’re contending here with a layer of complexity in the sense that we are now incredibly isolated as we do the heartbreak. Even within families, often everyone’s sort of retreating to their own rooms to do it, you know, everybody’s trying to protect each other from their sorrow, which is often just making it harder. As opposed to really learning how to do it together. Let it be hard, even if it is sitting on the couch with a person who is weeping or for someone else, they may be raging, and just not doing anything, not distracting, but very much doing something in being present and holding that space for them.
Wojnicki: I was wondering if you have any comments on differences, surprises, things that people don’t take into consideration in particular, regarding how children grieve. In terms of children.
Warnick: Their grief often looks very different than adults. They grieve as a puddle jumping, They’re in it. It’s massive and it feels huge. And then they jump out. And that could be a child who’s literally just found out that a parent died from a sudden heart attack or something like that. They’re devastated for seven minutes and then they’re off playing hockey after that, which most adults have trouble wrapping their heads around. Right? And they, but they’re going to do that – they’re going to go back and forth, in a way that few adults can, they will balance the deep joy and deep sorrow. But that’s going to be the long haul. You know, the kid who’s six when his dad dies is going to think of it very different when he’s 12. When he’s 16, when he’s 22. He’ll keep revisiting that grief at different developmental levels. That catches a lot of adults off guard there like It’s been eight years why is all this grief coming to the surface? Did I not support them properly? Are we not grieving properly? And that’s where I spend a lot of time reassuring parents. This is very much how it looks. But not even just for kids, you know, I mean, if you’re 14 and your mom dies, you know, as an adult, when you have if you have children, a lot of people will revisit a lot of their grief for their mom or their dad or the person that they wish that were there. Right. I think this really keeps going on to a degree throughout our lifespan, that we keep revisiting our grief at different times. So it doesn’t go away.
Wojnicki: back to the original comment. There’s no fixed endpoint, right?
Warnick: When we’re processing it and support it in a healthy way, does it become less psychologically dominant? Yeah. So people grow around their grief, it’s still a big part of them, it doesn’t go away. I’ll often say to families, you know, my job’s not to fix your broken heart. My job is to teach you how to live with a broken heart. And that I know we can do. But it does get to where it’s not as all-consuming, if we’re processing it, and everything else, you know, and being well supported. So it does look different in kids. I find a lot of people are so surprised by the fact that kids can have experienced tremendous amounts of grief but still be having fun and playing. It doesn’t mean that they’re not grieving, but it means that they’re still able to have fun and not feel guilty about it and have a good time and then they’ll jump back into the grief.
Wojnicki: So maybe, you know, in a way, children are fortunate, if you’re going to lose someone at some point, that they don’t have that sort of self-awareness. Is it even self-awareness?
Warnick: Yeah, but I feel like that only holds true for quite young children, because it doesn’t take long before they do start doing that. And they are hesitant to go to school, because they’re worried someone will ask about their mom and they’ll cry at school. They don’t want to show their emotions in front of their peers. So I feel like that’s a bit of a buffer for a little while for quite young children. But I find that thing that can be hard with young children too, is sometimes part of their sorrow is that you know, they didn’t get as long with a person. Even kids who are infants or toddlers, when a parent dies or someone dies in the family, they’ll often, part of their grief process as they get older, is that they don’t have the actual memories that maybe an older sibling they really missed out on. Yeah.
Wojnicki: Yeah. So can you talk about photographs? This is a little bit off topic from communication. But you just reminded me. I took a course about self and identity. At one point, the professor said that there is some research that photographs actually create memories. Right? I wonder if, someone’s two years old, and there were photographs for two years of somebody with their grandparents or even a parent, right? Yeah. So as
Warnick: Fascinating, yeah. Well, and that’s where I think photographs are so important. But so are stories, right? And that’s where I often say – when kids are young and don’t necessarily have their own memories, it’s then the responsibility of the community, to make sure that child knows the person who died. Sometimes people will say to me, we go around our family and we all talk about memories of so-and-so who died. And I’ll say it’s a subtle difference, but you might just want to ask for everyone to tell a story about grandpa who died, because then even the kids who don’t necessarily have memories that they can recall themselves. They’ve probably heard a story and they can contribute in a different way.
Wojnicki: That’s amazing. I love that. I’m going to ask some people in my family for stories. Yeah. So we were talking about ways that people respond. Has anyone come up with a categorization of grieving styles? Is there a typology?
Warnick: Some of the work in this area by Martin and Doka looks at intuitive versus instrumental grievers, is what they call them. And intuitive would be sort of more emotive. I can, you know, talk about my feelings I can express my feelings with somebody else. And this is a continuum, whereas an instrumental graver would be more you know, I process cerebrally. I do stuff. I am, you know, maybe I’m starting my foundation or things like that. Right. But most people are falling somewhere in the continuum. And that’s where I do find that grief counselling, grief therapy, tends to privilege more intuitive. Grievers, support groups will help more intuitive Grievers. I often will say, you know, when you’re designing programs, make sure you’re doing some psycho education to where it’s like people can come in, they can stare at the board in the front, and not necessarily have to make eye contact with each other. Because you’re going to bring in more of your instrumental grievers that way.
Wojnicki: So if you if you’re a person who relies on frameworks, yes, you’re going to be actually comforted by saying, okay, here’s my roadmap.
Warnick: Yeah, well, exactly like this is an education session, right? And nobody’s expected to be like, I’m going to teach you some stuff, which you can take or leave, but no one’s expected to make eye contact with each other and share their feelings. Sometimes that just sort of emerges anyway, but it’s safer for some of those people who aren’t going to self-identify, and say, Okay, I’m going to go to this bereavement group, or I’m going to go talk to a therapist. And so I think it’s important to keep in mind that people do process their grief very differently. And within any given family, you can have a variety of grieving styles. I often will see couples after a child has died, or someone has died and they’ll be like,” well, it doesn’t seem like my husband’s grieving at all. I’m not seeing any emotions. I can’t get off the couch. I’m just you know, a mess all the time.” And it’s often not that the other person isn’t grieving. It’s just that their grief just looks so different, is expressed in very different ways.
Wojnicki: Wow. So that’s a really great reason to go see a grief counsellor, right?
Warnick: Yes, totally or just to research grief and look into it and recognize that there’s actually different ways of doing this. And often within families, we’re falling into the trap or trying to protect each other, you know, from the intensity of our sorrow, which is unfortunate. And they have done some research on this, too often making it harder.
Wojnicki: right. They’re buffering it.
Warnick: Yeah, absolutely.
Wojnicki: So one of the things that I did in preparation for this, I think I emailed you about it, I ended up in tears, but I found a website that was focused on grief counselling, and they asked people to leave a note saying, what was the best thing and or the worst thing that anyone said to them specifically when they were grieving? Yeah. And I was reading as I was reading through it, you know, it was interesting. It was incredibly sad. And raw. And it was also diverse. That’s why I was wondering about the topology. It seems like …. it very complicated, right? There’s not a clear cut, sort of, this is what you do, and this is what you don’t do.
Warnick: I always encourage people to be gentle with themselves too, because even when I’m teaching, and I put up lists of try to avoid the “fix it” trap. Try to not say “at least.”
Wojnicki: I feel like people say that all the time.
Warnick: It doesn’t mean you’ve been traumatizing people or anything else. This is challenging because one person may want their grief acknowledged, and one person may not. But that’s where I generally default to show up. Talk about the person, right? Ask for stories about the person. If the person says I can’t talk about them. I don’t want to talk about them, then don’t push them. Take their lead on that. But I tend to find far more people do want their grief acknowledged and do want the person to be talked about. But for sure if you’re using some of these strategies, and somebody says, I don’t like it when people say that– just like, I don’t like it when people use the D word I’d rather you say, “passed away.” Take their lead on that.
Warnick: Because there’s never going to be, one thing fits all.
Wojnicki: Yeah, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Warnick: We wouldn’t be having this conversation. But there are some general trends- of showing up. Right? Not trying to fix it or take away the grief just saying like, I’m here for you. Okay, you know, and I might not know what to say, I may not know what to do, but I am here for you. If you want to talk I can be here. If you need me to, you know, plow the field. I can do that. Yeah. Can I bring a dinner to you know, clean your toilets? Right? I like to be concrete like that. Because a lot of times we will say, “Well, if I can do anything for you, just tell me.” But for most people who are grieving, that’s overwhelming. Try to think, they’re too good to us. We want to say, please come and do my laundry, right? You know, but still. Don’t just show up and just do the laundry. Ask the person, “I was thinking maybe I could pay for your hospital parking?” Or maybe you can show up and do your laundry for the next couple days or whatever, would that be helpful? And then if they say, no, don’t do it. And if they say, yes, do it.
Wojnicki: As you were talking, something struck me. If the person doesn’t want to talk about the person who died, they might want to talk about themselves. Right? They could be two discrete things.
Warnick: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. But I think that the other thing is, they may want to talk about themselves or their experience of all this. But what someone may want today can be very different than what they might want a few weeks from now. That’s important. Keeping in mind a few months from now, I find quite often in the early days after a death, even unanticipated death, sometimes if people don’t want to talk about things, it’s because they’re worried about doing vulnerability and, you know, their emotion coming to the surface. And so I spent a lot of time trying to reframe for people that being sad, allowing your emotions to come to the surface is that’s not a weakness. That’s a strength. We need to do that together more often, right? But a lot of times the barrier for people is like, I don’t want to be sad right now or I don’t want to cry right now. But six months down the road, they may be very much able to talk about their partner without their emotions coming to the surface or they might be more comfortable with them when they come to the surface. And then sometimes what happens is nobody’s asking or nobody’s inviting them or giving them that opportunity. And that’s why I just like to say to people, you know, if at any point, whether it’s this month, or years down the road, you want to share stories about your person or you want to talk about this experience, please reach out to me. I will always welcome the opportunity to do that with you.
Wojnicki: Wow. Wow. So one thing that I’m hearing from you is just being open, right. So open to whatever you can do for the person and open to them changing.
Warnick: Yes, right. Yeah.
Wojnicki: And even open to them shutting you down.
Warnick: One of the feelings that Elizabeth Kubler Ross did identify, which very much is a part of a lot of people’s grief process, is anger. Sometimes, the messenger gets shot. Sometimes it’s going to be a harsh shut down. Still, the better default is showing up.
Wojnicki: Yeah, just stay open.
Warnick: Right. Absolutely.
Wojnicki: One more quick question. I’m curious if you have a comment, or an insight for us about the difference and maybe even the relative importance of sympathy versus empathy in the context of helping and supporting someone who’s grieving.
Warnick: Yes. So I mean, on a very basic level, I mean, a lot of people define sympathy as sort of feeling sorry for somebody. I generally find nobody likes to have people feeling sorry for them.
Wojnicki: And but yet, that’s the first thing we say. I’m sorry for your loss.
Warnick: Exactly. Perhaps something we should wipe out. Well, and I want to say about not using “sorry” as well, I tend to say, for a number of reasons. Kids will take it as an apology. But even teenagers sometimes feel — I don’t know how to respond to this. I tend to say like, you know, I’m really sad to hear your person died.
Wojnicki: okay, so that I hadn’t made that connection. But so that’s, that’s a very good point. That’s empathy.
Warnick: Empathy is, yeah, putting yourself in another shoes. Now, I think an interesting thing now is a lot more people are looking at compassion. Compassion and empathy are actually coming from different parts of the brain. And it’s actually a much healthier way, if we can come from a compassion standpoint. I can’t do justice to the conversation around it. But they’ve been studying it. A lot of Buddhist monks and others and have shown that people who are coming from a place of compassion aren’t getting the so-called “compassion fatigue” or “empathy fatigue” in the same way. So it’s actually empathy, I would say is a better place to operate from versus sympathy, okay, but if you can, do compassion and learn ow to operate from that. That probably makes sense.
Wojnicki: it is a hierarchy, right? Sympathy is better than nothing. Yeah, empathy is better than sympathy. Compassion is ideal. Thank you for that. I’m glad I asked. Yeah. So this is a brutal transition.
Warnick: That’s okay.
Wojnicki: It’s like the grieving children who were transitioning into the puddle or back out of it.
Warnick: Yeah, exactly.
Wojnicki: question number one. What are your pet peeves?
Warnick: Pet peeves? I hate it when people stand on both sides of the escalator and you can’t actually like go down the side of the escalator. And also snow paint material that rubs together. It’s ridiculous. I passed it on genetically to my child. She can’t handle people’s snow pants rubbing together either.
Wojnicki: The sound of it?
Warnick: Oh, yeah, so all my friends had to walk with their legs apart when I was a kid. And now as a parent, now I have to find special snow pants all the time that don’t have this material that rubs. I can’t deal with it.
Wojnicki: Oh my gosh, that is hilarious. So the escalator thing. I’m with you. In fact, I will be a bit of a vigilante if that’s the right word in this context, and say, Excuse me, we’re passing on the left here.
Warnick: right. I should do that. Yeah.
Wojnicki: Do you just push them out of the way?
Warnick: Exactly. Move.
Wojnicki: That’s funny. This snowpant thing that’s a new one! What type of learner are you?
Warnick: experiential. Yeah, I have to do it. Generally experiential. My brain is a bit like a playground. So I think like if I’m not doing it, my brain is jumping all over the place. And then I’m missing half of what people are talking about.
Wojnicki: introvert or extrovert.
Warnick: A lot of people think I’m an extrovert, but I actually refer to myself as a socially skilled introvert. I, you know, I’m probably pretty close to the medium part, but I actually need to have time on my own to get my energy back up. And I do love being around people. I’m not faking it or anything like that. But it does take some of my energy and I have to recharge by going and growing some vegetables and raising monarch butterflies and hanging out with myself.
Wojnicki: you’re very enthusiastic and animated, which is why people may expect you to be an extrovert but you’re saying you know…
Warnick: it’s complex in that I do love people. But I also need amounts of time, away from people.
Wojnicki: Communication preference for personal? Maybe connecting with your daughter or a friend for social plans, right?
Warnick: Generally I would text. Text. I would just text I like just want it fast. I don’t have to have a conversation because again, I’m trying to find some “me time.” Fast. Send a text. I’m still overwhelmed with all the like messengers and messages are all over the place and I can’t keep track of everything. I will just text and send a message.
Wojnicki: Got it. Last question, is there a podcast, a blog or an email newsletter that you recommend the most to people?
Warnick: I really like the podcast, “Terrible. Thanks for asking.”
Wojnicki: Okay. I’m gonna find the link for that.
Warnick: Yes, and Esther Perel. Where do we begin? Phenomenal. It’s all relationship stuff but grief is woven right into there. And then I love Megan Devine’s newsletter. I mean, she just wrote it’s okay that you’re not okay. All about grief and she’s a psychotherapist but her partner also died in a sudden drowning and she I think is really pushing the conversation about this.
Wojnicki: So you can you can also refer these to your clients right?
Warnick: Oh yeah I do.
Wojnicki: yeah, we talked about … Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability is phenomenal as well.
Warnick: So Brené Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability TEDTalk, I have recommended it to almost everybody.
Wojnicki: So the vulnerability construct is also related to the compassion thing you were talking about, right?
Warnick: Yeah, absolutely. They are closely connected.
Wojnicki: Is there anything else that you want to leave the listeners with or any main points regarding supporting their grieving friends?
Warnick: It’s important to consider also, how do we support ourselves? Sometimes I think we get really fixated on how do we support the other, but perhaps the most challenging thing is often like how do we show up for ourselves? How do we do our grief? Right? Are we pushing our grief to the fringes too, because it feels hard and it feels bad? And I find one of the biggest parts of my job is convincing people to grieve. It’s so easy to be busy all the time. It’s so easy to distract. So I’m often coaching for parents not to distract their children from their grief and giving them space and time for it. But for an adult on their own, or even the teenagers I work with, a lot of times what I’m trying to do is help build up their capacity and their confidence to know that they can be with and experience these really big hard feelings. And the vast majority of us are not going to get stuck in a black hole of these feelings, right? We will experience them, and it will be really hard. They will shift. And one of the things that I’ve really learned in this work is that we don’t let ourselves do the hard feelings, the sorrow, the yearning, the heartbreak. Ultimately, what we do unintentionally is blend out the other end of the emotional spectrum to just start numbing. We don’t feel the joy and the gratitude to the same depth as well.
Wojnicki: Wow, that’s pretty powerful. I mean, that’s compelling. If I was in a situation where I was grieving, or if I knew someone who was grieving, I guess it’s almost like denial. They’re denying themselves the opportunity.
Warnick: Well, I don’t know if it’s denial as much as not seeing the utility in it. Right?
Warnick: I think that we don’t have as much of an understanding of grief in our culture and our society. And so, I think a lot of times people are like, oh, that just feels horrible. So why bother? Right? They don’t realize that there is actually a good reason to bother. Because it will serve them well. And also just a reminder that most of the time, our grief is rooted in the love for the person who died. It’s an expression of our love after they’ve died. Just like it was important to express it and feel it when the person was alive right it is important to do that when they’ve died as well.
Wojnicki: Very nicely put. Thank you so much.
Warnick: My pleasure.
Wow. Did Andrea blow you away too? I have to admit I was very nervous about this interview, particularly since it is such a solemn topic. But Andrea is disarmingly easy to talk to, isn’t she?
Let me summarize some of her main points. She covered so much. So I created two lists for us. One is “what to think about” when we are trying to support our grieving friends, and the other is “what to say”. First – what to think about. What we should consider.
- Grieving is not a linear step-by-step process. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s model of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – was actually meant for the dying (not the grievers). Research shows that the process is not linear. Rather, it is more like a squiggly line!
- If you are celebrating someone’s life, try to make room for the grief It will come out at some point.
- Not only is the process of grieving non-linear and squiggly, but everyone is different.
- For example, children experience and demonstrate their grief differently than adults. It is not uncommon for children to jump back and forth from deep sorrow to playing blissfully with their friends. That is completely normal.
- Another example, some people physically exhibit their grief and others are very private about it.
- Some people may be intuitive in their grieving process, and others are more instrumental – they need frameworks.
- Even given all of these differences there are some things that are generally good to think about and to say.
- We can think about a hierarchy of sympathy to empathy to compassion. Sympathy is better than nothing. But empathy is better. And compassion is ideal. We should seek to be compassionate with our grieving friends.
- Another thing to keep in mind: Don’t try to save the person. As Andrea says, “don’t fall into the fixit trap.” Rather, show up and be there for the person. Just to sit and talk. Or maybe even just to sit.
- And last, don’t worry about making the person feel sad. They are already sad. The only thing worse than talking about the person who died is forgetting about the person. Talking doesn’t make it worse.
That is a nice segue to the second list of take-aways – what we should SAY.
- DO NOT say “at least they aren’t suffering anymore.” And do not say “thank goodness you have other children.” As Andrea says – “NOT helpful” There is no silver lining. These things don’t make the grief any less.
- If the griever wants to frame it that way, it is up to them Do not offer that. Got it?
- So what DO you say? Well, like Andrea said, you need to SHOW UP.
- Start with: I’m here for you if you want to talk. Or tomorrow. Or next month. Or next year.
- Unless they tell you otherwise, do not hesitate to use the D words: dying, death, died. There are over 240 euphemisms for death in the English language. Using words like “Lost” or passed are just wrong and sometimes confusing.
- What you can say is that you want to hear about the person who died. It could be “I never met your grandmother. Tell me about her.” Or if you did meet her, you could say “tell me again about the time.” Many people who are grieving find some relief in telling a story about the person.
I’m going to leave you with two of my favourite Andrea Warnick quotes. First, she said:
“We’re designed as human beings to be able to do heartbreak and experience profound amounts of heartbreak and survive it.”
And second, Andrea said:
“My job’s not to fix your broken heart. My job is to teach you how to live with a broken heart and that I know we can do.”
Isn’t Andrea just so inspiring? I hope you too find these thoughts to be empowering.
That’s it for now. I learned SO MUCH in this episode. I hope you did too! Thanks to Andrea, I am now feeling better equipped to help a grieving friend.
I want to thank you so much for listening.
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