My daughter called me this morning and said her friend’s mother died at midnight and then one of her teacher friends died at 2 a.m. Aside from her own grief, my daughter wanted to know how she could comfort her friend as well as comfort her fellow teachers.
Her question made me realize it’s often hard for people to know what to say or do when someone they care about is grieving. You may be afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making the person feel even worse. While you can’t take away the pain of the loss, you can provide much-needed comfort and support. There are many ways to help a grieving friend, starting with letting them know you care.
Understanding the Grieving Process
The death of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult experiences. Your grieving friend will struggle with many intense and frightening emotions, including depression, anger and guilt. Often, they feel isolated and alone in their grief and having someone to lean on can help them through the grieving process.
Don’t let discomfort prevent you from reaching out to them. Now, more than ever, your support is needed. You might not know
exactly what to say or what to do, but that’s okay. You don’t need to have answers or give advice. The most important thing you can do for your friend is to simply be there. Your support and caring presence will help them cope with the pain and begin to heal.
Listen With Compassion
Almost everyone worries about what to say to people who are grieving. But knowing how to listen is much more important. While you may think you should avoid talking about the death or mentioning the deceased person, your friend actually needs to feel that their loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and their loved one won’t be forgotten.
Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Let your friend know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn’t feel. Your friend should feel free to express their feelings, without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let your friend know they have permission to talk about the loss. Talk candidly about the person who died and don’t steer away from the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions – without being nosy – that invite your friend to openly express his or her feelings. Try simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?”
- Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if your friend doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
- Let your friend talk about how their loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.
- Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell your friend that what they’re feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. However, don’t give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what your friend is feeling, or compare your grief to theirs.
Comments to avoid when comforting your friend
- “I know how you feel.” One can never know how another may feel. You could, instead, ask your friend to tell you how he or she feels.
- “It’s part of God’s plan.” This phrase can make people angry and they often respond with, “What plan? Nobody told me about any plan.”
- “Look at what you have to be thankful for.” Your friend knows they have things to be thankful for, but right now they are not important.
- “He’s in a better place now.” Your friend may or may not believe this. Keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked.
- “This is behind you now; it’s time to get on with your life.” Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to getting on with because they feel this means “forgetting” their loved one. In addition, moving on is easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
- Statements that begin with “You should” or “You will.” These statements are too directive. Instead you could begin your comments with: “Have you thought about. . .” or “You might. . .”
Offer Practical Assistance
It is difficult for many grieving people to ask for help. They might feel guilty about receiving so much attention, fear being a burden, or be too depressed to reach out. You can make it easier for them by making specific suggestions – such as, “I’m going to the market this afternoon. What can I bring you from there?” or “I’ve made beef stew for dinner. When can I come by and bring you some?”
Consistency is very helpful and , if you can manage it, being there for as long as it takes. This helps your friend look forward to your attentiveness without having to make the additional effort of asking again and again. You can also convey an open invitation by saying, “Let me know what I can do,” which may make your grieving friend feel more comfortable about asking for help. But keep in mind that your friend may not have the energy or motivation to call you when they need something, so it’s better if you take the initiative to check in.
Take the Initiative
There are many practical ways you can help your grieving friend, including offers to:
- Shop for groceries or run errands
- Drop off a casserole or other type of food
- Help with funeral arrangements
- Stay in their home to take phone calls and receive guests
- Help with insurance forms or bills
- Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
- Watch their children or pick them up from school
- Drive them wherever they need to go
- Look after their pets
- Go with them to a support group meeting
- Accompany them on a walk
- Take them to lunch or a movie
- Share an enjoyable activity (take a walk, play a game, do a puzzle, make an art project)
Provide Ongoing Support
Grieving continues long after the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have stopped. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person. But in general, grief lasts much longer than most people expect. Your bereaved friend may need your support for months or even years.
- Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with your friend and periodically check in, drop by, or send texts, e-mails and cards. Your support is more valuable than ever once the funeral is over, the other mourners are gone, and the initial shock of the loss has worn off.
- Don’t make assumptions based on outward appearances. Your grieving friend may look fine on the outside, while inside he or she is suffering. Avoid saying things like “You are so strong” or “You look so well.” This puts pressure on the person to keep up appearances and to hide his or her true feelings.
- The pain may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same. You don’t “get over” the death of a loved one. Your friend may learn to accept the loss and the pain may lessen in intensity over time, but the sadness may never completely go away.
- Offer extra support on special days. Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever he or she needs.
Watch for Warning Signs
It’s common for a grieving person to feel depressed, confused, disconnected from others, or like they’re going crazy. But if your friend’s symptoms don’t gradually start to fade – or they get worse with time – this may be a sign that normal grief has evolved into a more serious problem, such as clinical depression.
If you observe any of the following warning signs after the initial grieving period (especially if it’s been over two months since the death), encourage your friend to seek professional help.
- Difficulty functioning in daily life
- Extreme focus on the death
- Excessive bitterness, anger, or guilt
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Inability to enjoy life
- Withdrawing from others
- Constant feelings of hopelessness
- Talking about dying or suicide*
It can be tricky to bring up your concerns your friend. You don’t want to perceived as invasive. Instead of telling them what to do, try stating your own feelings: “I am troubled by the fact that you aren’t sleeping. Perhaps you should look into getting help?”
*If a grieving friend talks about suicide, get professional help right away. In a life-threatening emergency, call 9-1-1.
Things to remember about grief. . .
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages. It can be an emotional roller coaster, with unpredictable highs, lows and setbacks. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling your friend what they “should” be feeling or doing.
- Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair and fear are common. Your grieving friend may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at loved ones, or cry for hours on end. They need reassurance that what they’re feeling is normal. Don’t judge them or take their grief reactions personally.
- There is no set timetable for grieving. For many people, recovery after bereavement takes 18 to 24 months, but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter. Don’t pressure your friend to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow their healing.