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The dos and don’ts of consoling a grieving person

Grieving the death of a loved one is one of the most difficult and challenging ordeals. Photo: Net

Often, we will have good intentions yet it’s easy to feel helpless when a friend, or someone you know is grieving a loved one.

“What should say? Should I cheer them up? Will a hug suffice?” could be questions running through your mind once you are hit with the news. Some people will not say anything because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing. 


On the other hand, there are people who know exactly the right words to say to a grieving person without thinking. They will look them in the eye, hold their hand and tell them comforting words.


Gloria Umuhoza, a makeup artist, admits to being one of the people who often hide behind such groups of people, because while she is always dumbfounded, they clear the awkward the silence in the room.


“People mourn differently. I will serve tea to mourners at vigils and offer help when needed, but somehow I can’t seem to face the grieving family because I don’t know if pity is what they want to get or just behave normally,” she says.

Jackline Iringaniza, a counsellor in Kigali, however, says in as much as it is tempting, and feels like the right words to say, people need to resist phrases like ‘time heals wounds’ ‘there is a reason for everything’, ‘I know how you feel’, or ‘be strong’ because you cannot truly put yourself in the person’s shoes.

“The problem with trying to fix someone coping with loss is that we are not encouraging them to grieve fully and become vulnerable to pour out their emotions and become stronger in the process. You need to understand that grieving people don’t expect you to say something that will make the pain go away or an emotional insight they haven’t thought of at this point.

“Similarly do not try to tell your experience when wounds are still fresh because you do not how they feel. Even if it comes with good intent, pick the right time to say. Their own loss is all they have space for in their thoughts so keep the focus on them,” Iringaniza says. 

Stuart Uwizeye, a businessman, also points out that many people, even with good intentions, often catch themselves saying “I’m here whenever you need anything,” yet someone grieving cannot gather the thought of knowing what they need as all they want is to grieve in peace.

“This is when they need people, especially close friends, to offer practical help like cleaning the house, putting the children to bed, gardening or even running the funeral preparations. Do not just leave everything to family until they are strong enough to be able to do tasks themselves, offer to help whenever you can,” he says, adding that even after the funeral is over the bereaved still need support and so it’s important keep around.

“Even after the funeral, do not just walk away or cross the street when you meet them just to avoid a chat. You might fear that you’ll remind them of the bad news again or you might think that close friends will be there for them and that you are unwelcome, but expressing sympathy shows someone that you care about their pain.”

When Esther Ingabire, a beautician, lost her brother a few years back, she was surprised that some guests offered more support than her closest friends. She says that even the bereaved do not expect people to cheer them up, just being fully present will help them feel they are not alone.

“Offer a listening ear if the person grieving is reminiscing the times they had with their loved one or is simply sharing their grief. Just knowing that you’re listening and acknowledging how bad it is therapeutic for them. Do not silence them because you are trying to distract them from the pain, understand that it is part of the grieving process.

“Also, try to show love in your own way. Do not try to do what everybody is doing because you think you don’t know the person well. A meaningful squeezed hug, some flowers or cards to show that you are thinking about your friend can go a long way in comforting them. Even though some acts of love may be more comforting and distracting, showing genuine care in any way will be appreciated,” she says.

Iringaniza adds that most people dealing with loss go through denial, anger, depression acceptance, often in no particular order and sometimes repeatedly. Each one of the stages, she says, is healthy and some may even struggle longer than expected. The more knowledge you have on these stages, the better equipped you’ll be to support your friend.

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