How to talk to people facing loss: Communication tips for front-line workers

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The charitable sector is made up of organizations and people whose mission it is to help others in need. Every day, staff and volunteers help people facing trauma, financial loss, physical hurt, and stressful or frightening situations.

Many people are formally trained to deal with it. Many are not. But all front-line workers need to be up to the task.

Redefining grief

Most people associate grief with death, but grief is a natural reaction to any type of loss. People may grieve any change in their lives because there is a loss of “what once was.” Even a promotion at work can cause a person to grieve the loss of familiarity and comfort of the old job and a close circle of co-workers.

If you think about grief this way, you’ll quickly realize how many people involved in the nonprofit sector face grieving people – at the food bank, the job retraining centre, a diabetes management program, or a women’s shelter. The people you serve are most certainly grieving, and you need to be able to support them with skill and compassion.

After loss, or when faced with someone dealing with loss, we may try to change the subject, or not offer support because we just don’t know what to say or do. Wouldn’t it be better if staff and volunteers had the confidence to wade into the situation, instead of shutting down or running away?

Listen with your heart

You don’t have to be a trained therapist to care and to listen. It may be awkward and you may not find the words right away, but you can always listen. Keep your body still, with no fidgeting or distractions, and connect with the person but showing you’re paying full attention. Encouraging words, such as “I see,” let the client know you’re listening.

If you have experienced a similar loss yourself, such as a divorce or job loss or a sick parent, resist the urge to tell your story. A snippet is ok, to help the person feel less isolated. Be interested, not interesting.

You want to encourage dialogue while being careful about what you say. Sometimes saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing. The client may know in his heart that your comment was not meant to minimize his loss, but his heart will still say, “ouch, that really hurt.”

A lady I know was grieving her daughter’s death. After returning to work, her supervisor was distressed because she was so different and said, “I know you’ve had a hard time, but I miss the old you.” Really now, how could she be the same? It might be easier for you to deal with someone who is unchanged after loss, but don’t expect that to happen.

What NOT to say

  • Things happen for a reason.
  • Don’t feel bad.
  • You’re young, you can always remarry.
  • You can have another child.
  • Life goes on, so must you.
  • Be grateful you had your job this long.
  • It’s just a dog.
  • Oh well, what can you do?
  • Been there, done that.
  • Get over it.
  • I know exactly how you feel.
  • She led a full life.

You don’t know of any higher power’s behind-the-scenes plan, or how people who are grieving truly feel at the moment. You shouldn’t instruct them to think or feel, or not think or feel, a certain way. Your attitude towards this loss or your experience of a similar loss should not be the focus, so avoid saying these things that take the attention away from those you’re meaning to help.

Questions that encourage communication

Questions should be used to clarify a point or move the conversation along. They shouldn’t be too personal, and above all, shouldn’t be used to control the communication by determining what will and will not be discussed. Focus on the person experiencing the loss and let him or her guide you. Here are some examples:

  • How can I help you?
  • What is the situation as you see it?
  • I have no idea what it must be like for you. Can you tell me what it’s like?
  • Can you tell me more about ...?
  • What are some things you’ve thought of that might help?
  • Where would you be comfortable talking?

There is a lot to say on this topic but my point today is to expand your definition of what a grieving person looks like. They are everywhere, all across the nonprofit sector, not just in hospice care, or in agencies serving bereaved families.

If you see your clients as grieving, you can employ some of the tips above to better serve them as they deal with their loss.

Share your thoughts with me. Did you think of grief this way before? What phrases do you find UNhelpful when talking to those suffering loss? What are your tips for effective communication?

Laurie M. Martin is a Certified Trauma Specialist and author of Life Interrupted. Learn more about her work at

Photos (from top) via All photos used with permission.

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