"Time heals all wounds."
"You should be grateful you had him for 40 years.""You just have to keep busy."
These are just a few of the estimated 141 typical but ineffective remarks that people are bound to make to other people who are grieving - according to the Grief Recovery Institute, a California-based organization. Only 19 of those typical comments are even remotely helpful.
Russell Friedman, an officer of the institute, says that most of these remarks are designed to appeal to the intellect, which makes them automatically counterproductive - and may even make the grieving person angry.
"In cases of grief, it is the heart that is broken - not the intellect."
Friedman says a person trying to comfort another should never say, "I know how you feel." Instead, say, "I don't know what you're feeling, but this must be really painful to you."
When trying to comfort someone during a viewing, talk about your own relationship with the deceased: "I'm sorry - I loved him. I'm so sorry he's gone."
Some people just want to be hugged. It depends on the relationship of the people involved - but it's important to acknowledge the sense of loss.
Sometimes there is an emotional distance that has never been resolved. When the person dies, the opportunity to resolve differences is also lost.
Sometimes, says Friedman, "there is residual energy tied to the death and how the person died. People may be angry at the highway patrolman who announced it, or the nurse at the hospital. The most helpful thing we do is to let them know that their feelings are normal and natural - to help them move beyond the loss."
Emotional loss is not limited to death of a loved one. It may also result from divorce, moving, retirement or financial disaster.
The Grief Recovery Institute is the brainchild of John James, who was devastated by the loss of a son 13 years ago. The physician in the case took James aside and said to him, "You should be grateful because you are young and you can have other children."
It was exactly the wrong thing to say to the grieving James. It completely negated the way he felt. In fact, his pain was so intense that his marriage ended in divorce less than a year later.
Finally, James ended up holding a .357 Magnum to his head but, according to Friedman, "was too chicken to pull the trigger." Instead, he lost himself in a mountain of reading material, in a final desperate effort to develop a process to deal with his grief.
The result was a program to help others. He wrote the popular "Grief Recovery Handbook," published in 1987 by Harper and Row, and organized the institute.
Even though James and his staff of 15 are not physicians, they now advise health professionals about the nature of grief. They teach therapists and even the funeral industry how to effectively talk with the grieving - how to complete a relationship that has ended.
They also teach grief recovery seminars. Their most recent innovation is the grief recovery hotline, which allows people from all over the country to talk with one of the trained professionals.
The institute provides the service regularly but deems it even more important during the holidays because people who suffer loss usually sense it more dramatically when they see an empty seat at Thanksgiving dinner or when they go Christmas shopping.
When someone you love has died, people tend to say many things that would be better left unsaid - then two or three weeks later they avoid you because they just don't know what to say.
So the Grief Recovery Institute provides a safe place to go - a non-critical, non-judgmental place. Just as people have an emotional need to talk about some wonderful event in their lives, they also need to talk about sadness.
If you need it or know someone who does, the hotline number is 1-800-445-4808, and the institute is located at 16421 Coldwater Canyon Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91616.