We often feel at sea when it comes to offering support to grieving friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers. Our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing can prevent us from showing up for the people we care about in their time of need. The truth is that there isn’t anything that we can do or say to take away someone’s grief. But there are so many ways in which we can offer support. I’ve identified four short, simple phrases to keep in mind when you are in a position to be a friend in grief:
The first step in being a friend in grief is to let go of the impossible expectation that you should somehow know exactly how to navigate uncharted waters. Supporting people who are grieving is tricky business and chances are we’ll mess up. That is okay! Keep showing up.
Don’t avoid offering condolences for fear of saying the wrong thing or upsetting your friend. In person, as a comment on a Facebook post, or through a handwritten note, offer words of comfort and support. If you have difficulty finding your own words share a meaningful poem or quote that expresses what you would like to say.
Avoid saying, “I can’t imagine…” I find that we can imagine but it’s too painful to stay in that place for long. When we tell someone that we can’t imagine how they feel we inadvertently isolate our friends. In turn, avoid saying, “I know just how you feel.” You can’t know how someone else feels even if we have had the same type of loss. Even if we are grieving the same person. Avoid the words, “At least…”. Nothing supportive or helpful follows, at least.
A key aspect of being a friend in grief is being comfortable with silence. Practice listening more than you speak. Wait longer than feels necessary before you speak and then wait more. This may feel awkward but through silence, you communicate that you are present and that you are willing to stay in the moment alongside your friend, even if it is a painful place to be.
Oftentimes, when we are in a supportive role our own grief experiences come up. This is not the time to share our stories.
It is difficult to see someone we care about hurting and we want to make it better for them. However, being a cheerleader or attempting to distract someone from their grief isn’t helpful. Meeting them where they are in the moment and being able to hold space for them is helpful.
Avoid talking about the future. We want to comfort our bereaved friends with promises that, with time, it will get easier. Unfortunately, time doesn’t heal all wounds. We adapt to our losses. We don’t get over our losses.
As much as you want to help, remember that your friend’s grief isn’t something that you can fix for them. Hopefully, this takes the pressure off a bit and allows you to show up for your friend.
Grief is odd. Everyone responds to loss in a unique way. It’s important to avoid judgment. Keep an open heart when supporting your grieving friend.
Say the deceased’s name. You aren’t at risk of reminding your friend of the person who has died and upset them. They haven’t forgotten and will likely feel grateful to hear their loved one’s name.
It’s important to avoid comparing losses. No one loss is the same. Even if we have experienced the same type of loss. Even if we are grieving the same person. Our relationships, histories, personalities, are unique. Our grief is as unique as our fingerprints.
Offer specific ways to help rather than asking your friend to reach out if they need anything. As we know, it can be difficult to ask for help. Also, it might be challenging for your bereaved friend to identify their needs in such a difficult time. Offer to take on routine tasks such as pet care, grocery shopping and childcare.
Making food is a lovely way to help a grieving friend. Check in with your bereaved friend about their food allergies and preferences. Deliver the meal in your best serveware, rather than tupperware, and tell your friend you’ll be back in a week to pick up. This creates a second opportunity to visit your friend and offer support.
After a death, there is typically a lot of visiting. This is a good time to drop off a bag of household necessities such as tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, hand soap, and healthy snacks. This allows your friend to avoid a daunting grocery store trip. If there are children around, consider including some special items for them.
For more information on grief and loss contact Erin Matthes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 966-8720.
By Erin Matthes, LPC, CT