Russell Friedman

Russell Friedman

Broken Hearts

Basic Tips For Helping A Grieving Friend

Helpful things to say and do and some things to avoid saying and doing

Posted Apr 30, 2012

The most frequent comment grieving people hear is, "Don't feel bad." It's what well-meaning friends and family say to those who are grieving a major loss like a death or the end of a marriage. Their intentions may be good, but the impact of that statement isn’t. More than anything, they want to put an end to the suffering, but telling someone not to feel the way they feel is the worst thing they can do.

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss, and feeling sad or bad is not only appropriate but actually healthy. There are better ways  to offer emotional and physical support to someone you care about while they work through a tumultuous time.

Acknowledge what happened. While bringing up the subject may feel awkward, it’s necessary. The grieving person needs and wants to talk about what happened and their relationship to the person involved. Robbing them of that opportunity is arguably the worst thing you can do.

Steer clear of cliches and advice. "She led a full life" or "he's in a better place" indirectly urges your friend to "get over" their grief. "You'll find somebody else" minimizes the loss, and is about the future, and not about how they feel right now. "I know how you feel" makes the loss about you, not the griever. Better to say,"I can't imagine what this has been like for you," or "I don't know what to say."

Be aware that they're not fully present. Grieving people spend an enormous amount of time reviewing the relationship with the person who died or from who they are estranged. The image of an old-time flicker card movie with thousands of images flashing through their minds and hearts at warp speed, best describes what’s going on.

Typical physiological responses are numbness and great difficulty with concentration or focus; altered eating or sleeping patterns; as well as the sense of being on  an emotional roller coaster.

Make yourself available to help. Assuming you are close enough both personally and geographically, make yourself available to help with everyday activities. You can help your grieving friend by shopping for groceries; caring for the children or pets; and other day-to-day chores. If your relationship is very close, you might also accompany them to funeral arrangement conferences and legal meetings so you can take notes and ask questions on their behalf.

Don't disappear after the funeral.The largest percentage of heart attacks in surviving spouses happens seven to 10 days after the funeral. [This and other details about the impact of grief on widows and widowers appear in “Mortality after bereavement: a prospective study of 95,647 widowed persons,” also known as the "Finnish Study: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.77.3.283.]

No longer distracted by a flurry of appointments, responsibilities and house guests, isolation and depression can set in. Arrange for your friend to have companionship —anywhere from a matter of weeks to as long as six months —while they adapt to this major life change.

Be alert to possible problems. If over an extended period of time you notice your friend has ongoing sleeping or eating issues, is unable to concentrate at work or school, or is becoming increasingly more isolated, it's time to speak up. Although the subject may be delicate, here’s a good way to approach it: "I'm very concerned for you. I'd be glad to support you as you look for help.”