“Tell me what your loved one was like.”
A religious leader describes these words as both a good beginning for those who don’t know how to respond in the face of inexpressible emotion, and also the most consoling words he can imagine – because it gives a friend in mourning the opening they need to talk about their grief and loss.
When someone you care about is suffering, words can seem inadequate. If you can’t think of the right words, or are concerned you might say the wrong ones, it is okay to be silent, or demonstrate your compassion and understanding in a nonverbal way – an embrace, or simply sitting with the person grieving. Your friend is in the midst of what feels like the loneliest experience imaginable, and simply being present for them may be the most valuable thing you can do.
It’s both natural for someone in mourning to conceal the depth of their pain, and for those who care about them to seek ways to reassure them that everything will be all right and try to relieve their grief. Instead, let your friend know that whatever they’re feeling is okay, and you’re there to help in any way you can.
What can I say?
Choose your words carefully with a grieving friend, but don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from reaching out. Think about what you would find either comforting or upsetting if you were in their circumstances.
What to say:
- I am so sorry about (say deceased’s name). I know how much (he/she) loved you, and how much you loved (him/her).
- I don’t know what the right words are at a time like this. Just know how much I care.
- We all need help at times like this, and I’m here for you.
- I’m always just a phone call away.
- I am usually up early or late, if you need anything.
- You and (deceased’s name) are in my thoughts and prayers.
- My favorite memory of your loved one is…
What not to say:
- You need to be strong.
- At least she lived a long life.
- At least his suffering is over.
- He is in a better place.
- There’s a reason for everything.
- You can still have another child.
- God wanted her to be with him.
- I know just how you feel.
- It was her time to go.
- He wouldn’t want us to be sad.
- It’s time to move on with your life.
What Can I Do?
Megan Devine, in a video on her site RefugeInGrief.com, quotes educator Parker Palmer: “The human soul … simply wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is.” Devine goes on to say, “Acknowledgment makes things better, even when they can’t be made right.”
You can’t remove the grief that your friend is carrying, but you can make a painful time less stressful by removing other burdens:
Help in practical, tangible ways. Your friend may find it difficult to be proactive, or to clarify their needs, and everyday tasks may be hard for them right now. Rather than saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” or even asking, “Is there anything I can do?” actually do things your friend needs: make meals, buy groceries, walk the dog, clean the house, clear snow from the walk, accompany them on errands or doctor visits. Bring healthy, nourishing foods, such as soup and fruit. You can organize a plan with friends and family online to take turns scheduling meals.
Your friend may especially need help with issues related to their loved one’s death, such as retrieving the cremated remains or the death certificate, if a family member isn’t available. Imagine what you would do if your friend was recovering from illness or injury; although it isn’t visible, a broken heart can be as debilitating as a broken limb.
Suggest activities. Ask whether your friend is up to going out, and suggest some activities that aren’t too taxing, such as taking a walk, visiting a favorite park, going to the movies or out for a bite to eat, or perhaps doing something in honor of the person who died. However, don’t force it. If your friend wants to be alone for now, respect that, and check back later.
Listen without judgment. Ask your friend if they’d like to talk, and even if they aren’t ready to now, let them know you’re there to listen when they are ready. Let them know that talking honestly about how they feel isn’t negativity or weakness, and that they can speak freely about their loved one with you.
Call or write. If you can’t be there physically for your friend, write and call them at regular intervals to let them know you are thinking of them and are there to talk – or listen.
Share memories. If you know the person who died, talk about special times you all shared or their endearing qualities, such as sense of humor or generosity. Although this is a sad time when loss is foremost on your friend’s mind, you can also celebrate and honor the life of the deceased.
Be honest about your emotions, too. If you’re also grieving, either in response to the loss or to your friend’s sorrow, don’t be afraid to express your feelings. It may be exactly the release your friend needs.
Don’t disappear. Everyone grieves differently, and healing can take months or years. Often mourners are surrounded by people in the days after a death, but it soon feels like everyone has moved on. Recognize that your friend is still dealing with the loss, and continues to need your support as time goes on. Be patient, and don’t expect your friend to be “over it” in any set amount of time. Mark a reminder on the calendar to call or plan a visit/activity on special days, such as birthdays and anniversaries, which could be especially difficult. Take the initiative – be sensitive to the possibility that your friend may be embarrassed or self-conscious about how they’re feeling, which makes it difficult to ask for help.
When to seek more help. The most important thing you can do is support your friend, accept their sadness, and be aware they are going through one of the most difficult life adjustments. However, if a grieving friend talks about suicide, don’t disregard it. Suggest they seek help, such as a grief counselor. If that seems too intrusive, begin by asking if they feel the grief is too difficult to cope with on their own. If their behavior seems self-destructive, alert a family member or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255.
If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, subscribe to our bereavement series, 12 Weeks of Peace.