Why Do We Struggle To Communicate Compassionately With A Grieving Friend?

Tolulope Olajide sitting on a coach with hands on his chin as he reflects

When we ask, “How are you?” Do we really mean it?

Before we dive further, I am really interested in knowing how you are, “how has your week been so far?" and "what has been the highlight of your week?" Please share with me either through email or contact form.

I desire that by the time you finish reading this post, you will be able

  1. To identify your stress and anxiety response when communicating with your grieving friend, whether in person or through technology.

  2. Be equipped with the skills and tools to overcome the ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze response’ when communicating with your grieving friend.

Communicating with someone grieving the death of their loved one is an intimidating task. Our mind becomes heavier as we struggle to think about the pain and stress that the person is experiencing.

The thought of communicating with a grieving friend or acquaintance triggers stress and anxiety in us. Sometimes, this is triggered before or during the conversation, which is why you give yourself pep talks or "ginger” yourself before either communicating with or visiting the bereaved.

I also imagine that you may have had a pre-planned order of questions you were most likely to ask and thought about the potential response. It is also possible that you had a blank mind underpinned with nervousness as you dialled the number of the bereaved on your phone or turned up at their doorstep.

I want to share two conversations with you. Alex and Simbi are fictitious names, but the scenario is true. I would say Alex and Simbi are acquaintances; we say hello to each other when we see and have mutual respect.

Conversation type one: Those who reached out and focused only on activities and didn't acknowledge my feelings?

*** phone vibrates. I picked up the vibrating phone.****

Alex: "Hey Tolu, how are you?"

Me: "Hmmm…….*pauses for a moment*……... Today has been a mixed bag of emotions, but presently I feel griefy."

Alex: "Have you eaten?"

Me: "I don't feel hungry, but I plan to nibble on something later."

Alex: "Ah, okay, please make sure you eat. You need the strength."

Me: "Thanks bro, I will make sure to eat later."

Alex: "How are the children?"

Me: "They are generally okay, currently in their rooms having their afternoon nap."

Alex: "That sounds nice. I thought to check up on you. I will check up on you later. Please take good care of yourself, okay."

Me: "Thank you for checking up on us."

Alex: "Speak soon, bro."

Me: "Yeah, speak soon. Thank you once again."

*** Call ends***

Conversation type two: those who felt overwhelmed by my response and emotionally froze.

*** phone vibrates. I picked up the vibrating phone.****

Simbi: "Hi Tolu, How are you? How has your day been, and how are your children?"

Me: "We are here. We’ve survived the day so far."

Simbi: "Huh-uh, do you want to share more?"

Me: "The morning started okay because I felt like I understood how to manage my emotions. But by lunchtime, I felt overrun by varied waves of anxiety, envy and sorrow. It felt so bad that I had to lie on the floor for an hour while my crew entertained themselves by climbing all over me."

Simbi: *********Awkward silence*********

*****After a short while, which felt like forever, I asked *******

Me: “Hey Simbi, are you still there?”

Simbi: ****responded quite perplexed******* “Oh, sorry, the Lord will comfort you. I just thought to check up on you”.

Me: “Thank you for checking up on us.”

Simbi: “Please pass on my hug and kisses to your guys when they wake up”.

Me: “Sure, speak soon.”

******Call ends******

After the phone call, I imagined what was truly going on in Simbi's mind. Below is how I imagined it.

Me:.............“crew entertained themselves by climbing all over me.”

Simbi's thought: Who sent me message? Why did I even ask how he's doing? I don't even know him that well. What do I escape this one now? Okay, why don't I quickly end the call before he dumps another emotional bomb that I won't be able to handle?

Me: Erm, please say something. Oh, no. why did I over-share? At least check that she heard what you said.

Me: “Hey Simbi, are you still there?”

Young man appears to be standing by a bridge with head buried in his hands

Our response after the bereaved person has shared their vulnerable feelings can lead to an emotional shutdown.

I thought to share these two conversation types because I felt either an emotional disconnect or shutdown during or after each. The two scenarios above do not represent all the phone calls I have received.

I remember getting annoyed with myself for sharing how I truly felt. It felt like I had reached out my hand only to be left hanging. I began to respond mechanically to the "how are you?" questions because I have had what I consider a fair amount of these type one and two conversations.

I felt further withdrawn and isolated, even from my closest support network. I wondered if my actual response when communicating with people was a shock or overwhelming for the person listening?

I became sceptical about calls that I received. I became unsure if the communications were to check up on how I was, or perhaps an exercise to make them feel better.

I did not want to be vulnerable anymore. I noticed that I unconsciously began to shut down emotionally. I crafted two types of responses that worked almost every time. I specifically prepared one of them for those within the faith circle. The responses were:

Response one:

"We're good, and my crew are keeping me busy." Sometimes I would even expand and say things like, "the children are doing great, full of energy and excitement as you would expect."Other times, I would say, "we are good, and the children are chopping life."

Response two:

"Thank you for asking how I am doing. I am grateful for God's daily dose of grace."

I observed that the crafted responses made most people feel better on the other end of the phone; the opposite was true for me. I felt like I couldn't genuinely share how I felt. I was afraid and began to believe that I was overburdening those around me with my inconsistent and heavy emotions of grief.

Why do people emotionally freeze or change the topic when the conversation gets heavy?

I am convinced that it's not because they don't care, but it's the effect of stress and anxiety. I did a bit of digging and thought to share my findings with you.

We feel stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed when the emotional demand is more significant than our coping ability. Stress is typically a response to mental or emotional strain. We often associate it with a sense of losing control over something. I imagine that communicating with a grieving friend can leave us in a state of fear, worry, or uneasiness.

The Stress Balance - A helpful idea can be to think of ourselves as being like a balance, or a pair of scales: Our coping abilities should be great enough to deal with most stresses, and to keep the balance straight.

What's our response to stress and anxiety?

A type of stress response that helps us react to a perceived threat is the fight, flight or freeze response. It is known to be a survival instinct that allows us to act so that we can protect ourselves quickly.

Fight or flight is an active defence response where you either fight or flee. Freezing is a state in which you put your fight-or-flight response on hold.

What could this look like when communicating with a grieving friend?

We respond to perceived danger or stress differently. Your bereaved friend may say something which triggers your fight response. Your brain sends messages to your body to quickly prepare you for the physical demands of the fight, flight or freeze.

When in fight response mode, we attempt to attack the source of stress and danger (grief caused by losing a loved one). We may end up going into advice mode, saying or doing things that your grieving friend may not find helpful.

You are experiencing a freeze response when communicating with your grieving friend, and you feel stuck. Your mind goes blank because of something your bereaved friend said.

Flight or freeze response could be responsible for why you avoid someone bereaved or rushing the conversation.

Understanding what is happening and how it is triggering the feelings in your body is one of the first steps in coping with the fight-or-flight response.

What are the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety?

The physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety can be frightening. The image below indicates the primary symptoms of anxiety in connection with our body's fight, flight or freeze response.

main symptoms of anxiety and why they happen in relation to our body’s fight-flight-freeze response.

Coping skills for overcoming the fight, flight or freeze response when communicating with a grieving friend

How we feel before communicating with someone bereaved will reflect during the conversation. We become emotionally unavailable when we are in a fight, flight or freeze response.

Our head was ready to communicate with your grieving friend, but your heart wasn't. So our communication sometimes doesn't provide well-intentioned comfort to our grieving friend.

To be emotionally available is to be present in body, mind and soul during the conversation.

I hope you find the following coping skills helpful to calm your body and mind down before and during our communication with your grieving friend as you learn to be in the present moment and not get caught up in your thoughts and emotions.

Grounding Exercises

Instead of being caught up in the downward spiral of our emotions, we can use this grounding exercise to concentrate on what is going on in our bodies or our immediate surroundings.

My favourite grounding exercise is called "5, 4, 3, 2, 1," and it involves using all five of our senses to ground ourselves.

As an example, I try the following:

  • 5 THINGS I SEE in my environment around me: my bottle of sparkling water, computer screen, notepad, stick it notes, white envelope.

  • 4 THINGS I FEEL: my feet planted on the ground, elbow on the table, the chair I am sitting on, my beard.

  • 3 THINGS I HEAR: car driving past, relaxing music in the background, my fingers typing away at my computer keyboard.

  • 2 THINGS I SMELL: my tropical sunset reed freshener, the soap I washed my hands with.

  • 1 THING I TASTE: Custard cream biscuit in my mouth. If you don't have access to taste, you can say one calming mantra such as, "Just breathe" or "No feeling is final."

Deep Breathing or Belly Breathing.