Successful Communication During Grieving

In the past two weeks I’ve had the unfortunate experience of witnessing the passing of a very dear family member. During my visits to a hospice unit at a hospital, discussions of funeral home arrangements, and speaking with people offering condolences, I was able to observe various degrees of effective verbal and non-verbal communication (I can’t help myself!). The eulogies at the funeral I heard were stellar and exemplified the essential elements of a sincere and captivating message. While verbal content  and the vocal delivery may be especially important for the eulogies, non-verbal communication becomes even more critical in the one-on-one situations. Body language can either reinforce or detract from the message. Through the various stages of dealing with the death of a loved one, effective communication becomes paramount.

Let’s first look at the hospice nurses, most of whom have mastered the art of non-verbal communication. Their eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, and handshakes, touch, or hugs communicate the care, compassion, and concern that is so essential to this noble profession.

The funeral director is challenged by the raw emotions of their “client” and family members and the need to balance compassion in the midst of conducting business. A sincere handshake with eye contact, good listening skills, and the ability to communicate details without sounding too businesslike is critical during this time of grief.  The visual (body language, eye contact, posture) and vocal (tone of voice, rate of speech) need to support  and soften the grim details and costs of funeral planning (verbal). The lack of eye contact that was intermittently evident detracted from the bond of trust during difficult conversations. Posture and body positioning as well as making sure to address each of the family members must also be taken into account.

It goes without saying that the clergy member (rabbi, priest, minister, pastor) must encompass all of these skills when speaking with family members, leading the funeral service, and offering a eulogy.

Many friends and family are stymied and uncomfortable about what to do or say to grieving relatives. Again, eye contact, appropriate facial expression, and a warm handshake or hug are the foundations of good communication. Sometimes a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is sufficient.  If you can think of one memory to share or one comment about the individual, the conversation can flow from there. Being an active listener removes the burden of carrying on the conversation.

In summary, as is true in many different situations, a large part of communication is not just what you say, but how you say it and how your non-verbal communication supports that message.

Rest in Peace

Milton Ullian 3/11/21-4/24/14