Watching a friend cope with grief often leaves us at a loss as to how we can help. In fact, our own discomfort may cause us to avoid the grieving person altogether – an unintentionally painful consequence of avoiding friends who are mourning. Instead, below are some supportive ways to help a grieving friend or family member:
What to say
Many people agonize over what to say to a friend who has experienced the loss of a loved one. Know that there are no magic words that will make their pain go away. Be genuine: “I’m so sorry.”“She was the best friend/coworker/neighbor.”“I know he/she loved you more than the sun, moon and stars.” “Cancer sucks.”
Also, ask if they would like to talk about their loved one. They will help you know if they do/don’t want to talk about it with you, but leave the door open. Just because their loved one is gone doesn’t mean they are forgotten – ever.
What not to say
There are, however, some things not to say. Comments like “you can marry again someday” or “you will have another baby” are neither helpful nor do they show an understanding of the grief the person is experiencing. And while faith can play an important role in the healing process, keep your friend’s beliefs in mind. Sentiments like “this is all part of a bigger plan” may not be well received – especially if the loss was sudden, unexpected or involved a young person.
The bottom line? Don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from reaching out to a grief-stricken friend. The key is to keep it simple, heartfelt and wholly supportive.
Good listening is powerful
Follow your friend’s lead as to whether or not they want to share the details of their loss. For some, retelling their story is a helpful way to process their grief. Others may not want to relive it.
How you can help
“Let me know if there is anything I can do” is usually less helpful than figuring out what needs to be done and doing it. Food is almost always welcome, but let your friend know that you don’t expect your dish back. You can bet that keeping track of who brought what is not high on their priority list.
Also, for especially close friends, it may be helpful to provide some other household basics that are likely to drop off their to-dos. Offer to tidy the house after visitors leave or drop off must-haves like paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, bottled water, frozen dinners, fruit or a gift card to a fast-casual restaurant. Walk the dog, mow the lawn or offer to take the children to the pool, sports practice or for dinner. Additional help with the kids may be especially appreciated, take them on a special excursion, bake goodies with them or offer to have them spend the evening. Sometimes your friends don’t know what they need until you offer.
Be sure to maintain boundaries that are appropriate to your relationship, but know that helping with everyday tasks is likely to be appreciated. Finally, don’t expect a pat on the back or a thank you note. These social niceties are likely to fall by the wayside while your friend is experiencing the pain of loss.
Grief doesn’t follow a timetable
Long after the memorial service is over and the last casserole has been eaten, your friend is likely to still be grieving. Let them know that you remember, too. When comfortable and appropriate, talk about the person who has died. Milestone dates, like birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, may be especially challenging. Be sensitive to their ongoing pain during times that are usually happy for others, which can compound their grief. A loving way to honor the deceased person on an especially meaningful date can be a thoughtful way to acknowledge the ongoing pain of your friend’s loss.
More help when they need it
The grieving process doesn’t follow a set schedule, but there are additional resources available should your friend find their suffering to be prolonged or unmanageable. Mental health professionals, appropriate clergy or other spiritual leaders, social workers and support groups can all provide ongoing support if needed. Should your friend reach out to you for information on available help, research and share with them useful resources that can help alleviate their suffering.
While grief is a normal process following the loss of a loved one, experiencing it is one of life’s greatest challenges. Recognize that your friend is going through a difficult, disruptive and emotional time. They may feel like their life will never be the same and they are right. Those who provide a steady and thoughtful source of support are among the only things that can make this difficult time easier to bear.