4 Common Barriers to Supporting Someone Who Is Grieving

Many of us clam up around grief. Here’s why and how to come out of our shells.

Posted May 06, 2020

Recently, a colleague posted on Instagram that her brother had passed away. I knew I had to say something, but nothing seemed appropriate. A social media comment seemed inadequate and a “like” was definitely tone deaf. We had never talked on the phone before, so a phone call seemed out of place. So I settled on an email. And I stared at the blinking cursor for what seemed like hours. What to say? How to be heartfelt without veering into cliches, cheesiness, or a dirge?

I know I’m not the only one with this problem. When a friend or loved one suffers a loss, it can be tough to know what to say or do. We worry that we’ll say the wrong thing, cause more pain, or generally make things worse. We also worry so much about comforting “the right way” that sometimes we end up saying nothing at all. How to stop feeling awkward and guilty? Let’s tackle 4 reasons someone else’s grief makes us clam up and how to come out of our shells.

1. You don’t know what to say.

Feeling at a loss for words is the most common barrier. We live in a fix-it society; we want to make it better and take the pain away, but there are no words in the world that can do that.    

A good go-to when you can’t channel your inner Hallmark card is this recipe: It’s simple, sincere, and conveys three messages: One, this is hard; two, I care about you, and three, I’m here for you.  

There are a zillion variations on this theme. For example, you might say, “What you’re going through is so sad. I love you. Call me any time day or night.” Or this: “I’m so sorry about Tom’s passing. You’re so important to our family. How can we help out?” Or simply state the basic recipe: “This is hard, I care about you, I’m here for you.”  

And quite honestly, even if you can’t remember the three components and end up mumbling a cliche like “I’m sorry for your loss” or “My sincere condolences,” it’s okay. Those time-honored phrases won’t win any creativity contests, but if they convey your concern and come from the heart, they’re not cliches anymore—they’re support. On an in-person visit, you can even sit together in silence. It’s awkward, but it’s your presence, not your words, that are most important.

2. You’re worried you’re intruding.

We’re taught to offer privacy and respect after a death. But privacy shouldn’t mean radio silence and it’s never disrespectful to offer your support and love.  

And there’s a difference between “not intruding” and avoiding. So go ahead and talk about the person who died. Remember the person, share memories, say how much they meant to you. This does two things: First, it demonstrates that what happened isn’t unspeakable—that the loved one’s name isn’t taboo just because she passed away. And second, it simply acknowledges the loss. Even if your stories are light-hearted, talking about the person who died shows you’re serious about remembering them. And that is never intrusive.

3. You don’t know how to make them feel better.

This barrier is a no-win situation. You’re not going to fix things. But guess what? You don’t have to. And you can’t.

Grief is like a bad meal: The only way through is to digest it. And processing grief takes time—up to a year or two for many people, though you never really ‘get over’ a close loss. Their loved one will be missed forever. Indeed, it would be worse if they weren’t missed.

Actually, many of the stock phrases we use to try to make people feel better, like “He’s in a better place,” or “Things will be back to normal before you know it,” or even “Time heals all wounds” are lacking at best, insulting at worst. Who’s to say the best place for the person who died wasn’t alive and at home with her family? And no, things might never be normal or all right again.

But the urge to make someone feel better is strong. We want to help, to contribute. So instead of offering advice, offer support, whether emotional support or what’s called instrumental support—that is, tangible offerings like delivering takeout, running an errand, or taking their dog for a walk.  

There are two schools of thought on this. One is to extend an open-ended offer of help. This gives the bereaved a chance to ask for what she really needs, whether it’s taking care of a few tasks or to-dos or just providing company. But don’t say, “Just let us know if you need anything”—the “if” will kill the chance of them ever reaching out.  

The other school of thought is to state what you’d like to do for them—mow the neglected lawn, organize a meal or takeout train, or send a few activities—books, toys, or craft kits—for the kids. This takes the burden off of the bereaved to have to assign tasks and manage a support team on top of everything else. If you’re worried the person will feel self-conscious, you can piggyback the task on something you would do anyway: “I just made enough baked ziti to feed an army—may I come by and give you some?” Or, “We take the kids out on a bike ride every Saturday morning; we’d love for Jordan to join us, too.”

4. You don’t do well with this stuff.

It hits too close to home, you’re afraid of death yourself, or you’re sure you’ll break down and your loved one will awkwardly end up having to console you. It’s good to be honest with yourself. Too often we think up some other reason to avoid the grieving person when we’re really just afraid we can’t handle their pain.  

Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll be overcome and ugly cry? You’ll choke up and be unable to speak? Whatever horrifying outcome you imagine, ask yourself, “How bad would that really be?” Your loved one might appreciate the honesty of your tears or the depth of your care. Grief ain’t pretty. But it’s not supposed to be. It would actually be weird if we breezed through it with a wink and a smile.

A final note: What if you think you messed up a past chance to support someone who lost a beloved? Well, for better or worse, you have another chance. Anniversaries of the death are often difficult, as are wedding anniversaries or birthdays. Test out a few words of solace next time one of those dates roll around. Your friend will likely be touched that you remembered. It’s never too late to show you care.

So remember: This is hard, I care about you, I’m here for you. You’re not intruding, you don’t have to fix it, and, of course, it’s okay to feel some heartbreak yourself.