This past weekend, I assisted a local organization in creating their COVID-19 preparedness communications. Both Rob and I worked in public relations at one point or another, and crisis communications inevitably became part of our jobs. I remember when Rob once attended a seminar with Jim Lukaszewski, “America’s Crisis Guru.” He came home with a giant white binder of supplemental content, and we sat on the couch together excitedly poring over it. The way we taught our children to apologize (another post for another time) was largely based on our experiences doing crisis communications for nonprofits.
Whether a crisis makes the national news or just touches your workplace, communicating with people who are afraid or angry is hard work. It requires both firmness and gentleness, a keen sense of how much information is necessary and how much is too much. Above all, good crisis communications is always people-focused, attentive to the needs of those to whom you speak. It’s less about what you want to say and more about what people need to hear. You must know your audience — their fears, their desires, their objectives, their needs. You cannot expect to have the right words in the crucial moment unless you’ve done the legwork in advance to truly know your audience. The right words rarely appear ex nihilo.
Good communication always has the other person in mind. It is always well thought out. Good grief communication is no different. If we are to do it well, we must cultivate relationships and attend to others before the time of crisis comes, before grief makes speaking and listening and thinking infinitely more difficult. We must learn to love and listen now.
For many of us, our opportunity for grief communication comes with little warning. We are suddenly thrust into a crisis moment and feel called upon to speak. And so, with little preparation we fumble. We say nothing. We say the wrong things. We smother the wounded with cliches: Everything happens for a reason. God must have wanted him. At least he’s not in pain. It’s good you’re still young. He’s in a better place. God never gives you more than you can handle. Instead of a salve to the wounded heart, our words pierce deeper and make raw an already open wound. We have not thought about death or grief until that moment, and our lack of preparation shows.
When I consulted with nonprofits, I used to encourage them to create a comprehensive plan that included crisis communications. Many would balk at such an idea. They were small organizations with limited resources. Surely there were more imminent matters to which they should attend. But here’s the thing: no plan is still a plan. It is just a bad plan. Crises will come, and we must be ready to attend to them. We must be ready to meet the people who are angry or hurt or afraid and speak to them in ways that they can hear, in ways that make a difference.
Preparing to talk about grief and death is no different. If we are to be equipped in the moment to offer a word of love or comfort, we must prepare in advance. We must learn now to listen and love those who are near to us. Our conversations must become more other-focused, more “swift to hear, slow to speak.” Rather than memorize a set of platitudes or inspirational verses, we must become students of one another. So that when the time comes to companion a loved one through death or grief — because it will surely come — our words reflect gentleness, compassion and deep love.
Death is the great crisis of life, and we all will eventually cross paths with it. If we are wise, we will not shy away from conversations about grief and loss now. Instead, we will study, make a plan, attend to others. We will consider the words we ourselves would need to hear were we to face deep grief. We will learn to talk about the things we fear most. When we do this, our communication will become intentional and sweet, a balm for sorrowing hearts. Our words — and our presence — will offer refuge, rest and reassurance for others in the time they need it most.
Want to take the first step in learning to talk about death and grief? Rob’s book, The Art of Dying, is an indispensable resource. Learn more here.