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I don’t know what I can do or say to somebody who has just experienced the loss of a loved one?

A friend asked this question when she found out that an ex-classmate’s spouse had died from an unfortunate accident at home.

Know that people show their grief in different ways. How much they show it does not necessarily equate to their level of grief or sorrow. You would not want to make a faux pas by saying something like “Oh. You look pretty well for someone who just lost her father.” or “You must be feeling relieved of your burden now.” So, how can you show your concern appropriately? Well, here are 3 things you can do to show your care and concern for a friend or colleague, even if you are not a trained mental health professional.

  1. It is very normal to feel unsure of what to say, so there is no need to feel like you must say something. Your presence already means something. If you are not that close to the bereaved person, it is fine to say something honest like “I don’t really know what to say at this moment, but I am here. If you need anything, just let me know.” If you are close to the bereaved person, give a warm hug. If you are close to the deceased as well, it is perfectly fine to weep or cry together.
  2. Offer practical help. People in bereavement often have to deal with many aspects of the post-death arrangements such as planning the details of a funeral, attending to religious rites, paperwork etc. and may neglect their own needs. Check if they need help to buy dinner for the week. Maybe you can rope in a group of friends and take turns to do that. Check if they need help to get some groceries. If they have dependants like young children or aged parents, ask if they need help with babysitting, sending them to school or to medical appointments. If they have a domestic helper at home, that probably helps their situation but there is no harm checking in, since the helper might also be feeling down or a bit lost, if there is a lack of direction.
  3. Typically, the hardest part of grief takes place only after the busy-ness of the funeral and cremation/burial is over, when most people feel like life should be “back to normal”. Do not try to avoid contact for fear of feeling awkward or triggering emotions. On the 1-month, 2-month and/or 3-month anniversary of the death, drop a gentle message to see how they are doing. You may want to ask them out for a meal, offer to accompany them on an errand or perhaps take a walk together at a nature spot. Nature always has a way of refreshing a tired soul.

Suitable for: Adults

Difficulty level: Moderate

How do I approach a difficult family conversation?

I know a family who is trying to build a collective effort in caring for one of their family members, an elderly person suffering from dementia. As the elderly person is unmarried and childless, it is one of her nephews who is trying to organise an extended family meeting to discuss caregiving plans for her, which involves issues such as her place of accommodation, legal and financial implications etc. And so, his question was, how can he pull off a difficult family conversation like this?

Here are my suggestions.

  1. Set a meeting agenda. Regardless of whether your relationship is close or conflictual, calling a meeting and setting an agenda conveys a more ‘business-like’ tone that can help to focus the discussion. Depending on how many items are on the agenda, make sure to give it sufficient time. State the estimated length of time needed for the meeting, perhaps ending it with a group lunch/dinner, to make sure that people do not start to leave the meeting before it concludes.
  2. A group meeting needs a facilitator/moderator (makes sense that it is usually the person who calls for the meeting). Besides the duty mentioned in point 1 above, he/she should also lay clear some ground rules before the meeting starts. Some common ground rules are: not interrupting when someone is speaking, no hurtful/disrespectful language, encourage sharing of one’s feelings and views without assigning blame to others (using statements starting with ‘I’ rather than ‘You’). When emotions start to run high, the moderator may also call for a well-timed toilet break for all or refill coffee/tea/water to defuse the tension.
  3. On the other hand, if you have members who tend to beat around the bush, sugar coating everything they say, the moderator can paraphrase on their behalf, to convey their message in a direct (but non-hurtful) manner. For e.g., if someone says, “I am almost 77, my wife is getting on 75. I am also wondering, either of us can be gone anytime now, my strength is not even a quarter of what it used to be… remember I used to be able to run a marathon in my younger days? The younger ones now, you have youth and energy on your side, your aunt would love to spend more time with you all…” In response, the moderator might say something like this, “So what you are saying is, you have doubts over your ability to care for Aunt ___ because you are getting older and weaker, and that younger family members should be able to do more, am I correct?”
  4. Be well-prepared in terms of information sharing. If for example, the meeting involves making a decision on how to split the cost of hiring a FDW (a domestic helper), then it makes sense to find out beforehand how much is the going salary for a FDW, the extra in household expenses to provide for her living needs, the government levy, insurance and medical expenses, any financial subsidies that are applicable etc.
  5. At the end of any meeting, it is always useful to wrap up/summarise the main points and coming up with a ‘to-do’ checklist together. This would help to avoid a ‘he says, she says’ scenario later on, where members genuinely (or not) forget their consent/commitments that had been made in the meeting.

In general, the above tips are good to observe in most meetings, whether in the workplace or in the family. I have used the word ‘meeting’ as a substitute for ‘conversation’ so far, as I do favour setting a more ‘business-like’ tone to steer difficult conversations. However, do be aware that a meeting is in essence, more formal than a conversation. If there is no real urgency in decision-making and you only want to get a conversation going, you can afford to relax on points 4 and 5. Instead, you can focus on appreciating the diversity of everyone’s views, and if anyone has something different to say, seek to understand the rationale for that. Remember, a conversation can also be ongoing over a period of time. So you may wish to wrap up the session with something like this, “Hopefully, we have all learnt something new and interesting from one another today. We may or may not agree with everything we have heard and that is OK. Our views may change with time as well. Perhaps by the next time we meet, we would all have a better idea of this matter ________.”

In some cases, maybe none of the above works or even make sense. For e.g., your family situation is unusually complex and conflictual, there is no one who can facilitate/moderate, then you may wish to consider the service of a family therapist who can support you in this.

Difficulty level: Moderate to high

Suitable for: Adults

Our family has never been the type to say ‘I love you’ or to show physical affection. Now that my child is turning into a teenager, our relationship feels cold and distant. What should I do?

Know that there are many ways to show love and concern. While it is perfectly fine not to physically express your affection, it is not OK if you only keep all the love in your heart. Love and concern for someone needs to be expressed outwardly in some way, in order for the person to receive it. If your family has never been the type to show physical affection, don’t start now, as it would only feel unnatural and inauthentic to yourself and your child.

Here are a few things you can try to do for a start.

  1. Focus on the practical instead. Get your child’s opinions on what food he/she would like in the coming week, so that you can do meal planning to include some of his/her favourite dishes. If he/she likes to order take-out from a particular fast food restaurant, why not allow that for the whole family once in a while, even if you may not like it? This communicates that you respect his/her choices and increase the sense of belongingness in the family when everyone is having the same food.
  2. If you know that your child is going through a particularly stressful period, such as exam season or tournament season, avoid constantly questioning them about their level of preparation or their day-to-day results report, simply let them know that you are available for them. You can say something like, “I know this is an important time for you and you need to focus on your ______. I don’t want to get in your way, just let me know if there is anything I can do to support you.” No word of ‘love’ is mentioned, yet this communicates volumes about your concern.
  3. If you are not used to giving goodbye kisses and hugs at the door, that is OK. Try giving just a smile, or walk them to the door and simply say, “See you tonight!” By the way, smiles are infectious! When you smile at your child, it will be hard for him/her not to smile back at you. 🙂 In general, make an effort to smile more for good vibes all around the house!

Suitable for: Adults

Level of difficulty: Easy – moderate

How to make my child happier?

I was chatting with someone who lamented sadly to me one day, “I asked my son to rate his happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, and he said 4. Reasons were – always getting scolded, coping with school is so hard… And I just felt that childhood should not be one big, long struggle all the time… so many hours a day.” Does this sound like your child too?

Let’s take the ‘happiness scale’ one step further. My suggestion to her is this – take a ‘happiness scale’ rating every few days, or even every day. The next time he gives a low rating of 4 again, ask him one question, “What is the one thing we can do right now to increase it to 5?” Not to increase it to 8, 9, or 10, since that might cause him to be very excited and ask for the moon! But to increase by 1 on the scale.

There are two aims for this. Firstly, to see that it does not take much to make yourself feel a little better. Secondly, to see that while you do not have control over the external environment or other people (e.g. make them scold you less), you can still do something for yourself.

Suitable for: Aged 5 and above

Difficulty level: Easy