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How to Help a Grieving Friend
You just found out that your best friend’s mother died. Or a coworker lost her spouse. Grief is difficult, and as much as we want to help, sometimes we don’t know how. We want to be a good friend, but when death arrives, we often want to run the other way.
Don’t let your fear or uncertainty stop you from being there for your friend. In reality, there is nothing you can say that will take away the pain of their loss. Instead of worrying about what to say, focus on how to communicate your support.
How to Help
Be there. Let your friend know that you are there for him or her. More important than what you say is the fact that you called, wrote, or showed up.
Be specific. It’s okay to ask, “Is there anything I can do?” but it is even better to offer something specific. “I’ll drop off dinner next Wednesday. Is lasagna okay?” Practical help is often appreciated, as people who are grieving can be overwhelmed with daily tasks. Offer to go food shopping, bring the kids to sports practice, help with funeral arrangements, or write thank you cards.
Be honest. It is okay to tell your friend, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I love you.” It is also okay to refer to the loss as a “death” and to the person as “dead.” This helps your friend know that you are willing to talk openly and honestly about what happened.
Be a good listener. Avoid offering advice. Instead, listen to what your friend needs. “What is this like for you?”, “How are you doing today?”, “What do you want me to know about what you are going through?” are some ways to start listening.
Be accepting. Many complicated feelings arise when someone dies. Not all of them are sadness. Anger, relief, levity, frustration, and fear are also common reactions. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Accept the full range of emotions that your friend expresses.
Be okay with silence. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. It is okay to sit quietly. To hold hands while they cry. Just being present while your friend grieves is incredibly powerful. Our culture teaches us to “fix” things, but grief isn’t something that needs to be fixed. Grief needs to be experienced, and being a quiet witness to that process is often the most supportive thing you can do.
Be there for the long haul. Newly bereaved people are sometimes overwhelmed with support and visiting family immediately following the death. But a few weeks or months later, isolation can become a reality. This may be when your most important role begins. Be the friend who is still calling and checking in three months after the death. An extra call or visit on holidays or anniversaries is also an important sign that you care.
Some Helpful Things to Say:
“I’m here with you.”
“I love you.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“What do you want me to know about what you are going through?”
“I’ll drop off dinner next Tuesday.”
“I remember ……”
“I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I’m here.”
What Not to Say
The most important thing to remember about grief is that it is individual, and belongs to the person experiencing it. Just like there is no one “right” thing to say, there is no universal “wrong” thing either. Yet, most people who have just experienced a loss tell us the following statements are not helpful:
“I know how you feel.” Avoid going into detail about your own losses, even if they are similar. Each person experiences grief in a unique way. We can never know what another person feels.
“It will get better.” Even if the acute pain of grief does change over time, most people who have experienced a death of a loved one don’t find this statement helpful. It diminishes the pain being felt at that moment.
“(S)he’s in a better place.” Avoid saying things that are based in belief or opinion, not fact. Even if you shared a similar faith before the loss, you cannot assume your friend still feels the same way.
“Everything happens for a reason/It’s God’s plan.” This is another statement that is dependent on a particular world view, and your friend might not agree.
“Be strong for ….” Statements like this diminish the importance of experiencing grief fully. They also imply that grieving is weak. Feeling grief and sharing those feelings with others takes a tremendous amount of strength.
Any statement that starts with “You should…” or “You will…” Avoid statements that imply you know more than the grieving person about what to expect or what to do. Your friend may be lost and be looking for guidance. Provide practical help, but don’t tell someone else how to feel or act.
When to Get Help for a Grieving Friend
Grief is a long and complicated process. There is no time frame for when people should be “over” their grief. But there are signs that your friend may need professional support. These include drug or alcohol abuse, significant withdrawal, any talk of hurting themselves, or disconnection from reality.
If you think your friend needs professional support, help identify resources. Offer to take your friend to the first appointment. Someone who needs professional help coping with grief might need help getting help.
You might find the following links helpful in getting more information about a certain situation.
If your friend lost a child: http://bereavedparentsusa.org
If hospice was involved: http://hospicefoundation.org/End-of-Life-Support-and-Resources/Grief-Support.aspx
If the death was a suicide: http://www.save.org
Helping children deal with grief: https://childrengrieve.org/about-childhood-grief