The Language of Grief

Hear me Lord and Answer my Prayer

At a conference in mid-August I had the priviledge of attending a presentation by Amy Florian, CEO of Corgenius. A powerful, engaging speaker she provided everyone in the audience with a new and invaluable understanding of the language of death. I’m honoured that she has agreed to provide some of her knowledge in this post and  help prepare all of us for the moments when we will share in the grief of clients, colleagues, family and friends. 

What is your standard way to greet clients and colleagues on the phone? If you’re like most of us you say “Hi, how are you?” That is not surprising, since it is considered the standard greeting in North America. But what if that client or colleague has recently experienced the death of a loved one?

In cases like this, “Hi, how are you?” is not a good question. It invites a gut response like “How do you think I am? My husband just died!” In addition, it is an unanswerable question, because how a grieving person is “doing” can change hour by hour or even minute by minute. Finally, grieving people are acutely aware that most people don’t really want to know the answer, especially if the answer is not good news. So in order not to offend or burden others, they rely on a standard response such as “Fine” or “OK”. It’s not the truth, but it gets them by for the moment.

You want to do better. So what do you say?

Instead of asking “How are you?” invite them to talk about what is going on and be willing to take the time to listen to the answer. Remember they are probably aching to talk. You can preface your questions with something like “Hi, it’s good to talk to you.” Or “Hi, I’ve been thinking about you.” Or “Hi, I’m happy you called; you are always in my thoughts.”  Then ask an open-ended question such as:

•So what kind of a day is it today? Is it an up day, a down day, or an all-over-the-place day?

•What do you wish people knew about what you are going through?

•This has to be one of the most difficult experiences of your life, and yet many people find that once the services are over and others get back to their regular routines, you should be “over it” too. Are you finding that to be the case, or do you have people who are really supportive?

•It always takes time for the shock to wear off. In what ways has the reality sunk in, and in what ways does it still just seem unreal?

•People are well-meaning, but sometimes they unintentionally say all the wrong things. Tell me something someone said that was helpful, and something that disappointed or saddened you.

When approaching a holiday, you can ask questions in the context of the season. For example:

•  How are you approaching the coming holidays?

•  Holiday time can be particularly difficult after a death. Do you find yourself dreading certain things about the holiday season? Is there any aspect of the holidays that you are still looking forward to? Have you even thought about how you want to handle holiday meals, visiting, and the invitations to parties?

•  How do you wish other people would acknowledge [name]’s death over the holidays, or do you prefer that no one mention him/her?

Asking these kinds of open-ended questions displays your empathy in terms of  what your client or  colleague is experiencing and shows you actually care enough to hear what they are really feeling.  This deepens relationships and helps you identify the best way to offer help and support.  Plus …  it’s the right thing to do.

© Corgenius Inc. 2016 All rights reserved. Amy Florian is a Thanatologist, visionary CEO, author, speaker, coach and teacher. Her work shines a light on grief and transition, topics widely overlooked in professional services industries.  Amy’s practical, insightful, and inspirational training is crucial in helping service professionals do the right thing for clients, retain business across generations, and attract new business from less educated competitors. An acclaimed speaker and expert, she is the author of over 100 articles and the book “No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients through the Toughest Times of Life”.  Amy holds a Master’s Degree and is a Fellow in Thanatology (the highest level of certification in the field of grief studies). She taught a graduate class at Loyola University of Chicago for nine years, has worked with over 2,000 grieving people, and consults with firms, corporations, and individuals around the globe. Follow Amy on Twitter.

Enjoy your phone work everyone!

Closing a sale is the natural outcome of inspiring great conversations and listening intently to our potential customers.

This natural approach still involves a process – a plan that moves potential customers through a journey of discovery with you. So ... what's your process? And am I the right sales coach for you? Let's find out.

0 thoughts on “The Language of Grief”

  1. Great topic! I particularly dislike the euphemisms that people use for death, ie: she passed on, crossed over, was called home. Our culture has been removed from the process of death and I think most people now find it scary. and don’t know how to talk about death. Thanks for the link to Amy’s company too.

    • You are so right, Peggy. As I sat in Amy’s workshop I realized I use “passed away” in my workshop so now I say “died”. We do hid from the raw-ness of death and yet … as the baby boomers age, along with their parents, we will be surrounded by the truth of it. It will be so important to communicate clearly and with empathy.

  2. Thank you for this Mary Jane,

    You can imagine how much I like this post working with grieving clients as well.
    I just started attending the MeetUp group ‘Death Cafe’ in Halifax every first Thursday at noon at JustUs, Spring Garden Road. People gathering to talk about death and related challenges. Great group of people.

    Thank you again for sharing Amy’s insight and advice, Jacqueline

    • Thank you, Jacqueline. And you are the second person to mention the “Death Cafe” to me, so I hope to have the opportunity to attend in the near future. It is important to keep the conversation going.


Leave a comment

When you subscribe to my weekly blog, you'll immediately get my detailed ebook The Why and How of Following-up featuring my best advice plus examples of success you can duplicate.


What's The Phone Lady doing?


  • Remote learning experiences + one-on-one coaching for women entrepreneurs (More info about this three-year program here.)
  • Team and individual coaching with a national moving company to refine their sales process
  • Remote half-day training for provincial tourism representatives
  • Remote seven-part sales training program for US-based SaaS
  • Remote webinar on accounts receivable communication for industrial-services company
  • Remote webinar on validation to college students in entrepreneur program
  • In-person workshop on job search skills for women in the trades
  • Remote half-day webinar on written correspondence to customers

Do you or your team want to improve your communication skills? Do you have a communication question or challenge you'd like to discuss? This quick-to-fill-out form is easy to use and you'll hear from Mary Jane very soon.