What Would a Humanist Do? Navigating the Language of Grief

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Today we bring you our latest installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on reader questions. Because while humanists are committed to being good without a god, sometimes they need a little advice on how to pull it off.

Q: Recently a neighbor shared news of a dear friend’s death, their history, and the grief she was feeling. I found myself telling her about the experiences my family had at the time of my dad’s untimely death years ago. Then, the other day I shared a health scare I had with a coworker and he said something similar had happened to his wife and nothing came of it. He quickly moved on to talking about himself. It hit me: we tend to relate others’ grief or fear to our own experiences, and is that helpful or the opposite? I certainly felt like my co-worker minimized my health issue—just because his wife was fine, was I supposed to cast aside all of my worries? And now I wonder if I myself erred in somehow comparing my loss with my neighbor’s. What would a humanist do when someone shares hardship?



Sharing personal stories is a great way to express empathy and understanding instead of going for the stereotypical “I’m sorry for your loss.” I think it’s also normal to get caught up in our own stories, especially if those stories mean a lot to us. Whenever we speak to others about their grief, the goal is to center their experiences and their emotions. If we are providing a personal experience to someone who is sharing their grief, it’s important to use that story to continue to center their experience and emotion, not use it as a gateway to talk about ourselves. Your coworker did minimize your feelings because instead of using his story to put you at ease or validate your feelings, he used his experience to dismiss your grief and center himself. Unless you were telling your neighbor that they will be fine because you’ve gone through loss before, it’s normal to share experiences of loss when people who are grieving open up to us. When someone shares hardship don’t hesitate to share your own experience, but make sure your purpose in doing so is to empathize with their pain and validate their emotions. Whenever we seek to aid others in any way, it’s important to ask ourselves if we are centering those we want to help or using it as an excuse to center ourselves.

—Margie Delao, Social Justice and Policy Assistant

The language of grief and fear is tricky to navigate, and it’s even harder to come up with concrete rules on how to best provide comfort to others. And even considering that, a written response like this (for which I have the luxury of thinking long and hard about how best to express sympathy) is worlds away from an in-the-moment decision your brain makes when faced with these difficult situations.

When someone shares a painful anecdote, chances are high they’re not expecting you to fix it, they’re not hoping for you to share a story of your own, and they’re not hoping for patronizing comfort. They’re looking for acknowledgement. They want to know that someone sees them and the pain they are experiencing. Full stop.

When the sympathizer responds with an anecdote of their own, their intention of expressing solidarity gets muddled because the acknowledgement of the pain gets overshadowed. It’s been a long-running problem in my life that I respond to others’ pain by immediately trying to fix it, without ever simply telling the other person that I see them and understand them. Not everyone wants to be fixed and not everyone wants to listen to a message of solidarity. But everyone wants to be heard.

—Peter Bjork, Web Content Manager and Managing Editor

Sharing our related hardship seems like a natural way to show empathy, but it could dismiss the other person’s experience by taking the focus away from them. Although you were trying to show your neighbor solidarity by relating to her story, she may feel like you tried to “one-up” her by mentioning a closer relationship and focusing on your grief. Although your coworker was trying to reassure you that the health scare isn’t serious, you may have felt mocked for worrying and frustrated that he didn’t seem to care about your personal case.

Before sharing a related experience in response to someone’s hardship, first be sure that they have finished sharing about their experience. Then think about why the person needs to know that you can relate. Will it make them feel less lonely or angry? Did you learn something that may help them? If they want to focus on their experience instead of inquiring about yours, don’t continue to talk about your experience. Respect that they may not be able to process another experience and need to focus on their own.

When we share about our struggles, we want people to listen. Sometimes we share to seek reassurance and validation. Sometimes we share to help us better understand situations and find solutions. Sometimes both are appreciated. It’s not always easy for the listener to know what you want to receive, so they may choose whichever they want to provide. Being direct about what you want or asking what the other person wants can be very helpful to all involved. The most important thing is that we actively listen and strive to always respond with empathy and compassion.

—Emily Newman, Education Coordinator