We are often unsure of how to support someone who has experienced a major loss. Below are some guidelines on how to interact with someone who is grieving. Please note that everyone is different, so not everyone who is grieving will agree with all of these suggestions. However, this is what I’ve learned from my own grieving process and what friends, family, and clients have shared.
“Share funny or touching stories and keep their name and memory alive.”
Do not ask for regular updates. Instead let the person know you are thinking about them and say “No response needed.” While it is with good intentions that we ask how someone is doing, it can be exhausting for a grieving person to check in with themselves and then have to write/talk about it. Sending a note that you are thinking about them and then assuring them a response isn’t needed releases some pressure on the grieving person while still staying connected with them.
Do not say religious platitudes such as God has a plan, your loved one is in a better place, everything happens for a reason, God only gives us what we can handle, etc. Even if the person has a strong faith, do not assume these statements will be comforting. A major loss shakes us to our core and often makes us question our core beliefs. It is natural for a grieving person to ask questions like “How did God let this happen?” or “Where was God when my loved one was suffering?” A grieving person may even be angry at God. Allow them to be angry and to wrestle with these questions. It’s a natural and important step in the grieving process.
Do not ask what the person needs. Instead, find things that need to be done. A grieving person rarely knows what they need, so asking them puts more pressure on them. And even if the person does know what they need, they may feel uncomfortable asking for it. Take some liberty and go ahead and do unobtrusive yet helpful things like cooking a meal, mowing their lawn, or sending a card. It's better to ask permission for things that you see need to be done but are a bit more intrusive, such as cleaning the house, picking up their kids from school, making phone calls, etc.
Continue to talk about the person who has died and say their name. At some point we usually stop talking about the person who has died because we are afraid of upsetting the grieving person. This can be very difficult for the grieving person, especially if the person who is grieving lost a child. Most people who are grieving want their loved one to be remembered. So share funny or touching stories and keep their name and memory alive.
Say “let it out” instead of “don’t cry”. Many of us were told not to cry at some point when we were young. As a result, we are often uncomfortable when we cry and when others cry. But crying is a natural release for the body and is a necessary part of the grieving process. So encourage a grieving person to “let it out” when they need to cry.
“Validate what they are saying and feeling with phrases like, I can't imagine how difficult this must be.”
Hold space for big emotions such as loneliness, sadness and even anger. This is difficult especially if you struggle to experience these emotions. Just sit with them and validate what they are saying and feeling with phrases like, “you have every right to be angry” or “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be.”
Do not expect the person who is grieving to take care of you emotionally. Bawling your eyes out and expecting the person closest to the loss to comfort you is not advisable. The person closest to the loss is coming to terms with how they feel and likely don’t have the bandwidth to take care of you. You may be grieving and having strong emotions too, but find someone else in your support system that is not as close to the loss to share those feelings with.
Caring for someone who is in the throes of grief is difficult. You may need space to process your own thoughts and feelings around the loss. Schedule a free consultation if you think you may benefit from grief counseling.