10 Ways To Help A Grieving Friend
“You’ll get over it.”
“At least he died doing what he loved.”
“It’s a blessing.”
“It’s important to keep busy.”
“Time is a great healer.”
These are just some of the things people – most of them well-meaning – say when someone’s lost someone they love. They are all pretty useless and most of them are wrong.
You don’t “get over” the death of a partner, sibling, parent or child. The initial shock wears off and you’re left with a great, bottomless hole in your heart. You learn to navigate that hole, eventually. You find ways to get through the days – and the nights – without constantly tripping and falling in. The hole remains; you just learn how to live with it.
In recent years a kind of myth has built up around people who died “doing what they loved”. As if the moment of death was somehow less painful because they were hang-gliding, or ski-ing, or working on a great new project. Most people, if given the choice, would prefer to die peacefully in their sleep after a long, healthy, productive life. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love to ski, just that they didn’t want to die doing it.
Death rarely feels like a blessing for those who are left to grieve. Even when it comes at the end of a long, painful illness, the real blessing would be for the person not to have suffered in the first place. The word itself comes with a certain amount of baggage: it implies joy, happiness, and, for many, finding favour with God. It can feel terribly out of place. “It’s a blessing” is the kind of platitude expressed by those who can think of nothing else to say. A simple “I’m sorry” would be better.
Everybody processes the crises of life in different ways. For some, work is healing. It keeps the demons at bay and helps to remind you that you still have value – that, while some things have been irreparably changed, other important parts of your life continue.
But keeping busy can fool you into thinking you’ve done the grieving work – that you’ve “got over it”. If you’re a naturally busy person, there’s nothing wrong with keeping busy. As long as you take time, when you need it, for yourself.
As for the ability of time to heal the pain of bereavement, that at least is true. But it’s still a cliché. There are better things you can say, and do, for someone who’s experienced loss:
10 things you can do for a friend:
1. Show up
Make a phone call. Send a card. It can be hard to be around someone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, but avoidance is never a good option. Down the road, when your friend has a chance to sit up and look around again, she’s going to remember who was there for her and who wasn’t. Be there.
2. Make a “real” offer
Saying, “I’m here for you” is a lovely sentiment but it doesn’t really mean anything. Rather than saying, “Let me know if I can do anything” call or email with something specific: “I’m taking you to lunch. What day next week works for you?” Or, “I know you haven’t been getting out much. I’ve got tickets to the theatre/art gallery/hockey game – will you join me?” Take over a small daily chore, if you can. Walk the dog once a day, or pick up the mail. These are substantial, concrete things that mean more than all the heart emojis in the world.
3. Don’t put the onus on the bereaved person to reach out.
“Call me if you need to talk” is unlikely to generate a response. It requires work on their part and they’re probably not up to it. Instead, call them. And continue to call. Let them know that if they don’t want to talk they don’t need to, but you’ll continue to call.
4. But – and this is a big but – respect their boundaries.
If you’re not particularly close to the person who’s grieving, or even if you are, he may not want to share things with you. Don’t take it personally.
5. Encourage the bereaved person to express her grief, if that’s what she needs to do.
It’s an interesting paradox that people who repress their grief are more likely to experience emotional breakdowns than those who burst into tears and let themselves grieve.
6. Accept that everyone deals with death differently
Grief isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. There’s no “normal” time period for grieving and no hard and fast rules about dealing with it. Not everyone needs therapy or grief counselling; research has shown that most people can recover in time as long as they have healthy social support systems. [http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/grief.aspx]
7. Don’t assume you know how the person is feeling on any given day
For all you know, this might be a good day. Ask how things are going. Remember: it’s not about you. Maybe you’d do things differently, if it happened to you. But you’re there to be supportive, not to dictate the grieving process.
8. Avoid the clichés:
“He’s in a better place.” “Her work here was done.” Really? This may or may not be true but it’s not helpful. Stick with what you know: This hurts. I care about you. I want to help.
9. Let the person be vulnerable:
Often the bereaved person feels she has to be strong for others – a parent must be strong for her children, the oldest child must be strong now that his father’s gone. Being strong may mean not showing your feelings, not letting yourself cry, not breaking down when you need to. Being strong means not allowing yourself to truly grieve. And that’s not helpful. Rather than saying, “You have to be strong” it’s better to just let them be human.
10. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say.”
A hug or even a friendly pat on the shoulder is sometimes all that’s needed.