What Grieving Friends Wish You'd Say
On meaning well: Too often, we add to the pain of grief accidentally.
Posted May 09, 2013
Advice for helping (not harming) friends in pain.
Friends need you when they're mourning.
Here, I shared what you should not say and how to help grieving friends.
So, what should you say?
Having recently been through the kind of catastrophic loss I'm talking about, I thought I'd push through the fog of grief and share some ways to better offer support. First, I think you should say what's in your heart and what honors their loss.
- You're so sorry for their loss.
- What can you do?
- Do you want to talk about him? Sometimes people want to remember but everybody is so scared that no one says the person's name. For some people in grief, keeping memories, words, songs, names, alive is the way they get through. For others, though, the opposite is true. I can't talk about my brother out loud, and I cannot say his name. Friends know that because they asked. My mom wants to talk about him and display pictures everywhere. We all grieve differently. A good friend can try to understand how their friend is grieving and how to best honor that individual process.
- What do they need?
- Are there any phone calls or emails you can make or send on their behalf?
- Can you pack their freezer with dinner for a week? Or, can you bring food in for dinner?
- Can you organize their group of friends into a schedule of visits or meals? Get their contact information and create a calendar to keep it from becoming overwhelming.
- Do continue visiting and calling after a month or two. Everybody abandons the grieving after that. Everything stops when the numbness and shock wear off and there you are, in your life, but not. The calls and visits and efforts from friends at that point were incredibly helpful and welcome.
- If somebody lost a spouse, they may not want to be alone at night. You can offer to sleep over if that's something you're comfortable with. This was a huge help for us. Nights are really, really bad.
- Would it be helpful if you came over or stayed over or brought something? Or nothing.
- And then there's the whole idea of just being present without saying anything.
- Just hanging out on those sad afternoons if you have some time to just be with your friend without saying much.
- Maybe there are dishes to be done from other visitors or thank-you notes to help write. That says a lot.
More good ideas
And then the great ideas started coming in, like this one from a reader in Oregon:
My mom is a grief counselor for an adult group at The Dougy Center—a fantastic Oregon-based organization. She recently wrote something that offered similar tips. One that stands out in my mind: Don't say things such as, "You can always have another one," when referring to children who've died. Also, never say "They lived a full life," because it's likely that you have no idea.
"A Broken Heart Still Beats"
One more recommendation I'd make is to buy a book for your friend. "A Broken Heart Still Beats" is one I've found meaningful and has been a comfort to others. Don't ask if they've gotten around to reading it or anything. Just make it available.
Here's a description of the book:
This remarkable collection of stories and comforting essays shows how scores of literate people, famous and ordinary, first endured and then rebuilt their lives after the death of a child. The precision of the writers' language to explain their experiences offers real companionship to those whose journey through grief needs "more sustenance than inspiration."
Chosen writers are mostly contemporary and English-speaking. However there are others, such as Isabel Allende, Sophocles, Camus, Jan Kochanowski, W.E.B.Du Bois and Tagore, among those testifying to the shock, despair, rage, alienation, and disorientation of this particular grief.
On helping friends with illness:
Fellow blogger Barbara Kantrowitz wrote a terrific piece I'd like to share with you about how to help friends struggling through cancer. All of her excellent advice really makes sense to me as useful for helping grieving friends as well. Check out her post.
Saying the wrong thing with the right heart
I got some thoughtful notes like this one, from a woman genuinely struggling to figure out how to navigate her friends' grief. She is certainly not alone in this:
Thank you for this article. Very helpful information. I have used at least five of the "what not to say" phrases, although I did mean well at the time. And I am grateful for the "how to help" ideas. In the past, I did very little to help grieving friends because I was afraid that something I might do or say would upset them. I look forward to other articles on these topics.
On meaning well
Until I'd been through catastrophic grief, I was the person who said these what not to say phrases. It's human nature to want to find language to express these universal feelings. Of course, you meant well. That absolutely comes through. I wrote this to help us find more effective ways to manage these impossible situations. You really raise a painful point when you said that you did very little for grieving friends because you were so afraid you'd upset them. That's why I wanted to write about this and will continue to. I just kept thinking there must be a better way to handle grief than feeling abandoned or resentful or avoidant. I so appreciate your feedback. I know a lot of people feel as you do—helpless and uncertain of what to do or say. I'm going to keep writing about it and gathering more information.
In the end, just be there. Let your open heart help heal their broken heart.