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Alex Lickerman M.D.

How to Help People Grieve

What do sad people really want?

Photo: Beverly

After a prolonged, debilitating illness, two weeks ago my father--at long last--died. As a physician, I've observed many people experience loss, but this is the first time I've lost someone close to me. This has, not surprisingly, put me on the receiving end of many condolences. Yet unable to rid myself of my analytical mind even in the midst of grief, I've found myself noting that the level of comfort people have in supporting others who are grieving seems to vary as much as the number of ways in which people grieve. And while everyone who's expressed their condolences for my loss has been wonderful, I'd like to offer some guidelines for those who feel awkward when called upon to express support for people who are grieving and don't feel they know how.

  1. What you say isn't important. A lot of people worry more about what they're going to say to someone who's lost a loved one than anything else, feeling that anything they say will, by definition, be inadequate. No one likes feeling uncomfortable, and people are often extremely uncomfortable around others who are sad, perhaps feeling a sense of urgency to figure out something to say that will make them less sad. But this is the wrong goal. Sadness is on its own timeline, and what sad people really want is permission to be sad without worrying how their sadness is affecting others. I don't actually remember a single thing anyone said to me at my father's memorial service. What I do remember is what I felt from them when they spoke—empathy, sadness, and concern. You can't fix a loss, so don't try. Even more important than your heartfelt condolences is your permission—communicated in whatever way feels most comfortable to you—that it's okay to be sad around you. Or angry. Or depressed. Or whatever the bereaved happen to be feeling.
  2. Don't talk too much. Some people just can't help themselves and simply start blathering (luckily this didn't happen to me). Either they're nervous about figuring out the right thing to say, or they're nervous about saying the wrong thing. But, really, when you talk too much the grieving person will sometimes begin to feel that they must take care of you. And quite honestly that's generally the very last thing they want to do. Remember #1 above: What you say isn't important. Silence isn't awkward for grieving people. Unless it's awkward for you.
  3. Tell stories. Not about your grief over a similar loss of your own (unless it's to communicate that you know what they're going through). Tell a story about the person who died (presuming you knew them). The kind of story doesn't matter. It can be a good story, an encouraging story, or a funny story. I loved hearing about my father through the eyes of other people, about how his life impacted them. Because every story I heard reminded me—or showed me—who my father was.
  4. Ask how you can best provide support. Don't presume you know. Don't be afraid that asking is inappropriate. It's not. I was surprised to discover that I wanted no one around me immediately after my father died (I was, in fact, the one who found him). And then I did want people around me (my family). And then I didn't again. A number of people said that if I there was anything they could do for me I should just ask. Though slightly different from asking how they could best support me, I replied each time that I wanted to hear stories about my dad. I even posted that request on Facebook. That was how I wanted to be supported. The answer that others give will undoubtedly be different, and may very well even be, "I don't know." But then you can let them know that's okay, too.
  5. Don't think they only need support at first. I wrote in one of my very first posts, Letter To A Widow, that after the death of a loved one, "inevitably conversations end, people go home to resume their normal lives, and the wife or husband or son or daughter is left alone with pain now occupying the space their loved one used to be." I'm actually sometimes a little mad that the world has gone on about its business, that it hasn't stopped in some way because of my father's death. So to be asked once in a while by my friends, "How are you doing?" is actually nice. I mostly say, "Sad, but okay." But even to have the chance to say that feels good. Not because I want others to acknowledge that I'm still grieving. Because I want others to acknowledge that it still matters that my father is no longer around.

Of course, everyone grieves in their own way. The advice I've given here is meant for people who grieve as I do. Or, I should say, as I am right now over the loss of my father. I'm sure if I was instead grieving over my wife—or my son—I'd be doing it quite differently. But even then, I suspect the core message I'm trying to convey would still apply: you have nothing to be anxious about in comforting the bereaved; the most important thing you can do for them—the only thing you need to do for them, trite as it is to say—is simply be present.