If you have a friend or loved one who is grieving, it can be difficult to figure out how to bring them comfort. Your actions and words do matter. The smallest gestures can make a profound difference to someone in the grieving process. Although grieving takes time and there’s no way to speed the recovery process, here are some ways to be supportive, courtesy of Harvard Medical School’s HEALTHbeat.
Name names. Don’t be afraid to mention the deceased. It won’t make your friend any sadder, although it may prompt tears. It’s terrible to feel that someone you love must forever be expunged from memory and conversation. Saying how much you’ll miss the person is much better than the perfunctory, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Don’t ask, “How are you?” The answer is obvious—”not good”—and because it’s the same greeting you would offer anyone, it doesn’t acknowledge that your friend has suffered a devastating loss. Instead try, “How are you feeling today?”
Offer hope. People who have gone through grieving often remember that it is the person who offered reassuring hope, the certainty that things will get better, who helped them make the gradual passage from pain to a renewed sense of life. Be careful, though, about being too glib, as doing so may make the bereaved person feel even more isolated. Rather, say something like: “You will grieve for as long as you need to, but you are a strong person, and will find your way through this.” This remark both acknowledges that there is no quick and easy solution and also affirms your confidence that things will improve.
Reach out. Call to express your sympathy. Try to steer clear of such phrases as “It’s God’s will” or “It’s for the best” unless the bereaved person says this first. Your friend or relative may need you even more after the first few weeks and months, when other people may stop calling. Check in every now and then just to say hello (you may find it helpful to put reminders on your calendar). Most bereaved people find it difficult to reach out and need others to take the initiative.
Help out. Don’t just ask if you can “do anything.” That transfers the burden to the bereaved, and he or she may be reluctant to make a request. Instead, be specific when offering help. Bring dinner over, pass on information about funeral arrangements, or answer the phone. Pitch in to clean up the kitchen. Sometimes your help is most valuable later. A lawyer might help answer questions about the estate. A handy person might button up the house as winter approaches.
Assist with meals. Provide hands-on assistance with cooking, and volunteer to help with shopping. For many bereaved persons, particularly widows and widowers, it can be a big adjustment to get accustomed to planning meals, shopping for groceries, and cooking for just one person.
Listen well instead of advising. A sympathetic ear is a wonderful thing. A friend who listens even when the same story is told with little variation is even better. Often, people work through grief and trauma by telling their story over and over. Unless you are asked for your advice, don’t be quick to offer it. Frequently, those who are grieving really wish others would just listen. It’s your understanding—not your advice—that is most sorely needed.
Avoid judgments. Your friend’s life and emotional landscape have changed enormously, possibly forever. You may wish he or she would move on, but you can’t speed the process or even ensure that it happens. Let your friend heal at the pace that feels right and in his or her own manner. “You should cry” or “It’s time to move on” aren’t really helpful directions.