Creative Ways to Connect

“How are you?” It’s a simple question that can be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances, never mind when in the grips of loss or other tragedy. Whether you hear it in the checkout line or from a dear friend, distilling your current experience into a simple answer can feel overwhelming and impossible. Knowing what else to say or ask can help us avoid the trap of asking those three habitual words that can spark anxiety and anger in those who are grieving. This isn’t to say that those who are grieving don’t want share about their experience or continue to connect with others. What it means is that crafting alternative ways to ask someone how they are doing can help ease the challenge inherent in answering that question.

So what to ask instead? It depends of course on your relationship with someone, but even with strangers, it can be helpful to inquire with something that departs from the norm. Rather than ask the person working at your local coffee shop, “How are you?” try out, “Anything out of the ordinary happen so far this morning?” or “What’s the most unusual drink you’ve made so far?” While families come to The Dougy Center knowing that it’s a place where people will make the time and space for them to truly answer the “How are you?” question, we know that having to answer it in passing, before they sit down for their actual group, can still feel distressing and confusing. That’s one of the reasons we train staff and volunteers to eschew “How are you?” when they greet children and families and say instead, “Nice to see you,” or notice something about what they are wearing, “Your boots are sparkly pink today!”

When you’re seeking to connect in a more profound way, there are a number of ways to invite people into conversations with more specific and possibly easier to tackle questions. Any question should of course be posed in a context of acceptance, and a willingness to be present with whatever is true for them, without fixing, dismissing, or minimizing their experience. Nothing shuts someone down quicker than hearing, “Oh, don’t feel that way,” “You need to focus on the positive,” or “Do you really think you should be going out and having fun at a time like this?” Instead, communicate that you are open and curious about the full spectrum of their grief. At The Dougy Center, we are working on a new Tip Sheet entitled, “25 ways to ask a grieving person “How are you, really?” without asking “How are you, really?” which will be available soon on our website. In the meantime, here are a few sneak-preview options for connecting on a deeper level with someone who is grieving.

  • Who or what did you want or need to avoid today?
  • What is most on your mind?
  • What do you wish your old self could tell you right now? What do you think your future self would tell you?

What’s been your experience either with asking or answering, “How are you?” while grieving? Visit our Facebook to share what else to ask (or not ask!).

At the Heart of our Program

As groups at The Dougy Center come to a close for the summer, we’d like to extend an enormous “Thank you!” to all of the volunteers who helped create safe places for children, teens, young adults, and their family members who are grieving a death. Since October, 2013, we’ve trained and placed 60 additional volunteer facilitators in our peer support groups. These new volunteers brought our total number of facilitators to 190! With the generous gifts of their time and energy, we are able to serve over 450 children and their 300 adult family members.

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The Legacy of Questions

In a recent group for children ages 6-12 who have had a parent die, we asked, “What questions do you have about how the person died?”

The answers ranged from philosophic wonderings about the nature of death—(“Why did this have to happen to me and not someone else?”)—to confusion about concrete details – (“I know my dad had cancer, but what exactly killed him? Was it the treatment or something wrong with his liver?”)  While sadness, anger, and anxiety are the emotions most commonly associated with grief, confusion and disbelief can be equally present for grievers of all ages. The questions that arise, moments and years after a death, vary greatly and often change over time. Some children want to know about the character and characteristics of the person who died. They have questions about dad’s favorite Thanksgiving food, mom’s friends growing up, their brother’s behavior as a baby, or sister’s dream vacation.

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Easing Difficult Memories

“My dad loved going to Oaks Park and riding the roller coaster with me.” “Steve and I met during our Freshman year at college.” “Carla, my youngest sister, always tried to steal my Halloween candy.” Memories are what those who are grieving have left. Many of these memories come with laughter and sometimes tears of joy as children, teens, and adults recall times spent together. Other memories though can bring great sadness, regret, and intense physical responses. New research from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois offers a way for people to help dispel the emotional charge of their worst memories. Researchers at the Institute found that when remembering difficult memories, people tend to focus on the negative emotions they experienced (sadness, embarrassment, fear, etc). They discovered that by simply turning the focus away from the emotions and putting it instead into remembering the contextual details such as the weather, what they were wearing, and who was with them, people were able to turn down the volume on the intensity of the negative emotions associated with the memory. This tactic offers an alternative to suppression and reappraisal, the two ways that people often try to deal with challenging memories. Suppression means pushing the thoughts and emotions away while reappraisal encourages people to look for the “silver lining” in a situation, a strategy that demands a lot of mental energy that most grieving people find to be in short supply.

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