Loss is a human experience that we all share. And yet, it’s one of those subjects that people tend to avoid, feel stress about, don’t understand. We share these ten tips to help you grow your ability to be with people in grief. Watch an interview from the Ashland Daily Tidings on what to say to someone in grief.
Ten Tips for Helping Others in Grief
1. Be there.
Send a card, call and check in, make it clear to the grieving person that you are available. Many who’ve lost a loved one find themselves surrounded by the support of friends and family right after the death, but then there is often a drop-off of support – sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden. Touching back in on a regular basis can mean so much to someone in grief, even if they aren’t ready yet to yes to many invitations. It can be tempting to avoid a grieving person because you don’t know what to say. It’s okay not to know what to say. Nothing you say can bring back their loved one. A good rule of thumb is keeping what you do say simple and sincere. And even if it’s awkward, your willingness to show up with an open heart means more than the “perfect” words anyway.
2. Listen and … keep listening.
Most people find it hard to listen to someone in deep pain and without trying to fix the situation in some way through advice, reassurance, or “wise words.” If someone is in deep pain, advice and cliché reassurances feel hollow and meaningless. More than anything, the griever needs a receptive presence, someone who can be there attentively while they talk, while they cry, or simply while they feel the depth of their loss in silence. Your willingness to listen, even when the expressions of grief might be intense, despairing, or repetitive, is precious to someone who finds themselves in a map-less wilderness of profound feeling, often taking them to depths they’ve never before experienced.
3. Offer practical, immediate help, especially in the first weeks after the death.
“Can I bring over dinner on Thursday?” “How about I mow your lawn Saturday morning?” Especially in the initial aftermath of a death, simple, practical help can be immensely supportive. Grieving individuals and families are not only dealing with post-death arrangements and paperwork, they are often feeling overwhelmed in every way and having trouble staying on top of bills, appointments, errands. Taking care of some of this for them is a wonderful way to give real-world support as they do their best just to get through the days.
4. Talk about the loved one who died, and don’t be afraid to use his or her name.
Grieving people are usually surrounded by people who avoid talking about their loved one. This lack of acknowledgment of the one who is in their hearts all the time can feel like a loss on top of a loss. Your sharing a memory or in some other way mentioning the deceased can be validating for the griever, and even a relief.
5. Ask questions from the heart, not the head.
Simple, heartfelt questions such as “How is it feeling for you today?” can open the door for someone in grief to share from their current experience. Questions based on intellectual curiosity alone, such as those probing for details about the death, can be alienating and draining for the griever on the other end. If they themselves feel a need to process and describe details about the death, that’s one thing. If you are asking so you can get the complete story and fill in your own understanding, this is clearly about your needs, not theirs.
6. Acknowledge significant days.
Birthdays. Holidays. Wedding anniversaries. And of course the anniversary of the day the loved one died. These days take on a special pain and poignancy for the griever. Shared traditions are no longer shared and days that used to be marked by celebration can become days marked by loneliness and aching loss. On one of these days a card from you, a call, an invitation to go for a walk… these little things can be so big to someone who is grieving.
7. Keep the invitations coming.
Some amount of withdrawing and isolation is a very natural part of grief. People need time to adjust to a changed world and fundamentally altered life. At the same time, gentle promptings to come re-join the world of the living again can be very helpful. If you would have invited the person who is grieving to an event in the past, invite them now. Don’t push, but know that your welcome mat will likely be remembered when they are ready to step out.
8. Be ready for ups and downs.
Grief is notorious for coming in waves. Even someone who’s endured a profound or traumatic loss can have days where their burden feels lighter, moments when they find themselves feeling playful or hopeful, even laughing. And often, as quickly as these moments or days or weeks come, these shift, and the griever may find themselves pitched into darkness again. You can help by taking the ups and down in stride and not fixating on any particular place the griever may find themselves. “It seems like it’s feeling harder again today” expresses supportive acceptance, while “But last week you seemed fine!” easily implies that the griever is somehow not doing their grieving right.
9. Accept even the shocking feelings.
It’s not uncommon for people in grief to have moments of not wanting to live, moments of rage at God, the Universe, themselves, or anyone/anything else, and times when all they cared about before the death seems empty and meaningless. In the process of normal healthy grieving, these kinds of feelings come and go, often more than once. A heart in grief is being stretched past all its familiar boundaries. Reacting to these kinds of feelings with fear or disapproval will likely only ensure that the griever won’t feel comfortable sharing deeply with you again. Responding with the gentle acceptance that comes from understanding will build their trust. If any particular feeling seems to intensify over time or get stuck in an unhealthy or obsessive way, that would be a good time to suggest they get professional support.
10. Be a friend, not an expert.
Healthy grieving finds its own way like a river to the sea. It heals over time. It moves and changes and deepens, often finding expression in many ways, including profound gratitude for the life and love of the deceased. It mostly just needs acceptance, support and trust. Intellectual understanding about the grieving process and its usual stages, tried-and-true ways of coping, and so on can be helpful … when sought out by the griever themselves. Unless they ask you do some research for them, hold the expert advice and give them what has no price and can’t be found on the Internet: your full-hearted presence.