Responding poorly to someone suffering from loss is easy; responding well is significantly more difficult. Many of us, myself included, default to attempting to make the other person feel better. It pains us to see those we love in pain, so our first attempt is to do something, to offer some advice, to get them past the grief. We know that at some point in the future, it will be us in the midst of grief, and we want someone to take that pain away from us.
Except that it doesn't really work that way, does it? Sure, a well timed laugh may momentarily distract from the sorrow, reminding us that there is hope for the future, yet the hurt still returns quickly. Our minds and hearts once again reflect on our loss.
The day of my father's funeral, a stranger on a message board I frequent, asked a question to the group about how to respond to a friend of theirs who was grieving. He expressed the natural desire to comfort his friend, but because his only experience with grief had happened when he was a child, he wasn't sure how to respond. Did he ever get more of a response than he expected.
It was quickly clear from the speed and frequency of responses that this is something many of us either struggle with, or struggle with responding well to those who struggle with grief. My response to the thread was partially informed by my experiences of the prior few weeks, during my father's decline and passing, and from a care and counseling class I had during college.
My hope is that if you have stumbled across this post, if you are either grieving yourself or are comforting someone who is grieving, that this helps you think about the situation in a different way. The following suggestions, and they are just suggestions, will work for some people and not others. The mind is not rational at the best of times, much less when overcome with grief. And with that, on to the advice.
Nothing you can say will make this suck any less for the person who is grieving.
You may think you know what will work, that will snap them out of their grief and send them along, happy as they were even a few days ago. This will backfire on you, I guarantee it. Maybe they won't be angry at you now, maybe not even later when they look back on this, but it definitely will not help.
Grief isn't something you can wish away; that just isn't how the human brain works. Time may give us the space we need to process the grief, but it remains with us, no matter how much we may wish that to not be the case or how much we may deny it to be true. Speaking words to a grieving person make make the speaker feel better, but they will not make the grieving individual feel better.
A better approach is to acknowledge the grief for what it is: intense, emotional pain. It does suck. Yes, it hurts. Yes, they will miss that person. None of these things are in dispute; they are the reality of the situation.
Don't pretend you have any clue what its like for them.
Grief is complex and no two people experience it in the same way. Yes, you may have lost someone with the same type of relationship, but a relationship type is not the same as the relationship the griever had with the deceased.
When your father passed away, he was a beloved member of your family and community. You all will miss his wisdom and tender heart. The person grieving in front of you may have had a quietly contentious relationship with their father, or worse an abusive one, and you have no way to know that. Their grief may be different in shape and intensity from yours. This isn't a time to judge if they're "grieving right" or not.
A better approach is to recognize you don't know what its like for them, but you see and respect the grief they are feeling. Keep your comments focused on them and what they are going thru, not your own experiences.
Don't spout platitudes.
"God has a plan."
"They're in a better place now."
"You'll be stronger after you go thru this."
Are any of these things true? None of us have any idea. These are empty words said by well-meaning, if empty people. It can be difficult to relate to those who are grieving; we don't always know what to say. We do know what not to say, and those are empty platitudes.
None of these things make the grief less, and some of them actively hurt the griever by trying to make them feel bad because they are grieving. The griever is still going to miss the person who is gone.
A better approach is to affirm that its ok for them to grieve, and that you are not attempting to minimize that grief.
Keep it short.
Everyone wants to spend time with the grieving person. You're possibly experiencing at least a small amount of grief over the person's passing yourself. It is easy to fall into the trap of monopolizing the time of the grieving person. You want to share your own grief or to remember the good times of the departed.
Don't run away like you don't really want to be there, rushing thru your condolences so you can exit the building as fast as possible. You're there for the person who is grieving, so be there.
A better approach is to plan out what exactly it is you want to say to them, because it is a real possibility that you become lost in your own grief. Write it out. Practice saying it out loud. Keep it simple. Use your own words and not anyone else's.
Skip the details.
Did they pass away unexpectedly? Was it a long, slow lingering death? Was there drama at the end? Was it a tragedy of epic proportions? None of that matters when the grieving person is standing in front of you. You're there to provide comfort, not to gossip about the departed.
Asking for details like this makes the grieving person relive what is often some of the worst moments of their life. It doesn't matter how it happened; it just did. The grieving person may want to talk about it, and if they do, listen attentively, but come bring the conversation back around to the griever.
A better approach is to focus on the griever and not the dead. Focus on their needs and wants, their hurts, their pains and their sorrow. Let them lead, but don't follow them into a horror show.
Ask what they need.
Just as you don't know what their grief is like, you also don't know what their needs are at this time. It may be that they have a community of friends who have been filling their freezer with meals for months, but that they're having trouble getting their daughter to swim practice. Their friends may be ignoring the advice in this post, so what they need most is someone who will be there to listen.
It is often difficult, with all that the mind is processing during grief, to know what you need. Its fine to ask someone to ensure they're being taken care of, but sometimes our questions end up sounding insincere because they are so non-specific. Grieving people just may not know what they need.
A better approach is to ask specifics. Can you make them a meal? Does their yard need mowing? Will they need help with childcare? Are you a member of a profession that can assist after the loss of a loved one? Use your strengths to their advantage.
Do what you offered to do.
It's easy to ask when the person is grieving in front of you. Chances are, the person grieving won't need anything or can't think of anything at the time. They are probably glad to know you offered.
We all get busy, and two days later, you might forget that they asked, but you shouldn't forget. If you made the offer and they agreed, keep to your word. We all forget, but that shouldn't be an excuse. Don't compound their grief with broken promises.
A better approach is to keep our promises, and know it or not, it was a promise. Follow up with them to make sure that the need is still there, especially if it is something that can't be done at the moment you asked.
Don't do something you were not asked to do.
We already discussed you don't know what they need, so don't try to do something you haven't cleared with them first. Your idea may be great, but it may also be a huge hassle for the grieving person; one they just do not need on top of everything else.
Did your aunt do something amazing for you when you were grieving? It may be something great for your grieving friend, but without their input, you really don't know if it is or not.
A better approach is to ask first. You're not bothering them by asking; start with it being a check-in to see how they're doing. After you listened to them, then if they seem like they are in a place to be receptive to it, let them know there is something you'd like to do for them, but only if they approve first.
Don't make big decisions while in the midst of deep sorrow.
Dealing with grief is a full-time job; don't add additional work for them on top of that. Keeping busy with things that will wait till later is a great way to hide from your grief. Your parent's house will still be there in a few weeks, so don't encourage grieving people to just get in there and get it done.
Taking time to begin to grieve will allow for better decisions later, when the grieving are not so overwhelmed by their grief. What might be obvious choices later may be impossible to determine at this moment. Encourage them to wait.
A better approach is to make the decisions you have to now, and only those decisions. Don't think a funeral has to be held in three days; if they need a month, the deceased will keep that long. Bank accounts, loans, taxes, whatever, can be negotiated later.
Spend the time.
You're not a radio DJ; dead air is your friend in this situation. Spending the small amount of time you likely will have with them (remember, keep it short) by talking and not listening will be a waste to you and to the person who is grieving.
Hearing them talk gives them a chance to begin to process their feelings, and they likely have a lot of feelings to process at this time. The more you talk, the less they can process.
A better approach is to ask a few questions (remember, don't go fishing for details) about how the person is doing and what they specifically need for you to do for them, then let them guide the conversation. Some people may not be able to talk much, and that's ok. Some may not be able to stop talking; that's ok as well. You're there for them and whatever they need. Spend as much time as they want you to spend with them.
You're at the funeral home. They said they're ok and that they don't need anything. Your job is done, right? You showed up, you listened and now its time for you and for them to just get back to your lives.
That isn't how this works. Grieving is a process, and one that does not go linearly or often even quickly. It takes time, and that person is going to need you, their good friend, to be there with them for a long time to come, as they adjust to a new reality without the deceased in it.
A better approach is to check in regularly. Don't bombard them ten times a day, but make sure that they can count on you to be there for them, that you're there for anything they need, be it actions or just to listen.
These are my (currently) 11 suggestions for being there for people who are grieving. In the future, I hope to return to this post and add more, as I discover them. I hope that these are helpful to you, as navigating grief is a tough challenge.