What To Say And What Not To Say To A Grieving Person


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As a receptionist you will deal with the death of patients. It is often very sad when say a young patient dies, a teenager that had their life in front of them taken away, a parent leaving a young family behind, or the elderly patient that used to come in with cakes every week for everyone – we all have our favourite patients and their death no matter what age can often be very sad and have a big impact on many staff within the practice.

As a Practice are you the Receptionists made aware of patient that has recently died? Are you informed of such or do you just find out by chance.

It is important that you are giving such information as you often will be the first person that the grieving person will be talking to. How you handle that telephone call or face to face conversation will made a big impact on the grieving person.

For a new receptionist this could be the first time that they are faced with such an incident. At your practice do you have policies for such a delicate issue? Family members of the deceased will be coming into the surgery to pick up death certificates, and to perhaps see the doctor.

As a Receptionist how would you deal with this?

I asked new Receptionists this very question and some felt comfortable that they could approach the person and give them words of comfort. Others would often say “I would not know what to say” and “I would be afraid of saying the wrong thing so therefore would not say anything at all”

As a Receptionist you could be the first avenue of comfort to the grieving person. No longer are the excuses “I don’t know what to say” or I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing” acceptable. Some people might say “Ignorance is bliss” but when it comes to consoling the bereaved, ignorance is certainly not “bliss”

In your role as a Receptionist would you say something to the grieving person or would you not feel confident enough to say anything at all?

Often people want to say something to the grieving person but are unsure of what to say so will actually not say anything at all in fear of upsetting the person.

Remember, grieving the loss of a loved one is the worst pain that someone can endure. Be respectful and polite. Don’t discount anyone’s feelings. Even if someone puts on a brave face and looks like they are handling it well, don’t assume that the person is.

Show that you care.

Here are some suggestions at things that you could say to someone who is grieving

  • I am so sorry to hear of your loss.

Making an acknowledgement that you are aware of their loss will mean such a lot to the person. This often is the simplest and most effective thing to say. It also shows respect

  • You and your family are in my thoughts

Especially if you know other members of the family.

  • I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you

You can’t begin to know how this person is feeling, even if you have lost someone yourself in your life, everyone deals with grief and loss in different ways.

  • She/he was so nice – she/he will be missed by so many people.

If the person that has died was special to you or any of your team in any way – share that with the person – tell them how special they were, share a story if you have one like they used to bring you cakes in each week, or they always had a smile on their face when they came to the surgery. This will be a comfort to the person listening.

Here are some things that you should not say to someone who is grieving

  • Do not say – “I know how you feel”

Its simple  – you have no idea how they are feeling. Losses cannot be compared.

  • Do not say – “You’ll get through it – just be strong”

At this moment in time the one thing they do not feel is strong.

  • Do not  say – “don’t feel bad”

Of course they feel bad and it’s totally normal to do so.

  • Do not say – “I understand”

You cannot possible understand how that specific individual is handling their loss.

  • Do not say – “Time will heal all wounds”

Because for the grieving individual, imagining life without their loved one is, well, at that point unimaginable.

  • Do not tell the person how you would feel in their place

They just don’t want to hear it – or need to hear it. It’s not about you!

  • Do not say – At least they didn’t suffer (in the event of a sudden death)

It certainly didn’t make it easy on the person standing there in front of you and at that moment in time it is no comfort to them. They are still grieving their loss.

  • Do not say – He/she is in a better place

What they person would pick up from that message is – better than here with me!

The common thread in the statements above (and many more like them) is that while most may be said in an attempt to comfort, absolutely none of these statements will console anyone.

As Receptionists I am sure that you are compassionate and you do deal with the bereaved in a professional manner. But it is important that when any new Receptionist starting at your Practice has appropriate training in this very delicate matter and that they get it right.

And most important if the grieving person does not want to share, then you should respect their wishes and give them some space. You have done your best to show your respect for their loss.

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