Inappropriate Questions

A death doula's guide on how best to support loved ones who are grieving

Kayla Moryoussef on what to say, what not to ask (how are you?), and other concrete tips for showing you really care.

Stop asking ‘How are you?’ and start showing up

(Sara Goetter)

Find the transcript for this episode here.

According to death doula Kayla Moryoussef, our society is pretty good at being compassionate, but we struggle to communicate and act on that empathy when it comes to grief.

"We are not educated, we are not equipped and we do not actually handle it well."

As a death doula, Moryoussef prepares dying people and their loved ones for death and its aftermath.

In a time of such loss, Moryoussef offers us concrete tips on how best to support our loved ones who are grieving.

Question your questions

When it comes to really getting through and being an effective support for a loved one, Moryoussef says nuance is king.

Asking general questions like "How can I help you?" and "How are you" are actually among the least helpful ways of supporting a loved one. Moryoussef says the scope of these questions can be quite overwhelming to a grieving person.

"The big one you shouldn't ask is 'How are you?' because as you can imagine, that's like a bit of a slap in the face." Moryoussef told Inappropriate Questions' host Elena Hudgins Lyle.

"A grieving person A) doesn't know what help support they need and B) isn't going to come out and ask you for support."

Customary questions like "How are you?" also communicate a level of insincerity and social obligation. Instead, Moryoussef suggests refining these questions to convey genuine interest.

"'How are you today?' or 'How are you managing today?' is compassionate and manageable."

Death doula Kayla Moryoussef is interviewed by IQ co-host Elena Hudgins Lyle. (Sabrina Bertsch)

"And you can ask that to a dying person and you can ask that to a grieving person. And it's an honest question," she said. "It really moves the question from being a scripted thing […] to a sincere inquiry."

But overall, Moryoussef says to be wary of coming across as prying with your questions for a grieving person. Don't ask too many, and be an active listener.

"Don't ask too much about like, 'What was it like?' 'Are you sad?' 'What was it like when they died?'"

"Hold space for them to talk … It's not about your agenda."

What to avoid

Besides asking the wrong questions, there are a couple customary grief practices Moryoussef says we should avoid.

First off, never pursue a sentiment that starts with "at least" when comforting a grieving person.

Moryoussef says we often try to make a grieving person feel better by comparing their situation to one that seems worse, but despite good intentions this doesn't work and can be quite insulting to the pain your loved one is feeling.

"'At least he lived a good life'. 'At least you have time to find another husband'. 'At least you still have two kids.' The 'at leasts' have got to be removed from your lexicon of grief speak," she said.

Sara Goetter is a cartoonist from Pennsylvania, currently residing in Austin, Texas. (Sara Goetter)

It is also common to try and make a grieving person feel less alone by sharing a story or anecdote about a similar experience, but Moryoussef says that this also rarely functions as intended and instead "turns it onto the grieving person to suddenly want to comfort you."

"That's a problematic dynamic. But again, built on the best of intentions."

Support strategies that work

There are a few active approaches you can take for helping a loved one who is grieving.

To start, Moryoussef suggests sharing your appreciation for the deceased with the person who is grieving.
"The one really nice thing you can do, and this includes in condolence cards, is offer an anecdote of their loved one who died."

"'This is how they were meaningful to me' or 'how they affected my life.' That could be really meaningful to them to hear a story about their loved one they'd never heard before."

Instead of asking a person who is grieving how you can help them, Moryoussef recommends taking it upon yourself to find ways to assist with daily tasks and responsibilities.

Kayla Moryoussef is a Community Worker/Registered Social Service Worker from Toronto who has been volunteering and working in end-of-life/palliative care for over seven years. She is a Death Educator, Death Doula candidate with Home Hospice Association, and project manager for all of their Death Cafés across Canada (and everywhere - virtually). (Kayla Moryoussef)

"Show up and do their laundry, show up and take their kids out for a day. One of the best things you can do for a grieving person is show up with food. People in immediate grief, they're not thinking about, or prepared, or in a place to make all of their meals. That's one of the best things you can do."

Finally, Moryoussef impresses the importance of checking in on your grieving loved ones, especially as time goes on.

She says that after someone dies there's a flood of support, but eventually it gets very quiet.

"You check in on the holidays. You check in on the birthdays. You check in on those times of year where grief resurfaces and is harder than usual. Because what happens after somebody dies and everyone's showing up and then slowly they taper off.

"You've lost the person you love and you've lost all the hubbub that came after they die and it's extra silent. That's when you really need people to check in. It's not the weeks after the person died. It's the months after the person died. It's when people stop checking in."


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Written by Sarah Claydon.