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Many of us experience times when we don’t know what to say to a grieving loved one or friend. We worry that we’ll say the wrong thing, so we say nothing at all. We tell ourselves people need space when we’re really just avoiding our own feelings. We end up repeating the lines of a greeting card verbatim.
The founders of The Dinner Party—an organization that connects mostly 20- and 30-somethings who have experienced significant loss to one another for bi monthly potluck meals—asked their community about the best and worst things people said to them when they were struggling. Their insights can help you support your friends who are going through difficult times.
The death of a loved one can feel really isolating. Your friend may feel uncomfortable around people who still have the parent, spouse, child or other loved one they’ve lost. Or they might not want to let their feelings out around others. But you can help them feel supported while respecting their need for space.
One way to help a grieving friend feel less alone is to simply remind them that you care. Ask how they are doing today. Tell them you’re ready for their real answer—fine, terrible, a shrug—without judgement. This lets your friend know they can let their guard down and that you’re there for them.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” “Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything.”
However well-intentioned, these general offers to help rarely work. Few people like asking for assistance, and in the immediate aftermath of loss, people struggle to name what they need.
Instead of offering to “do anything,” be as specific as possible about how you can help. Volunteer to create a schedule for friends who want to drop off meals, run out to buy toilet paper, babysit, or mow the lawn. By suggesting something specific, you take the onus off your friend to define what they need.
Most platitudes are born out of good intentions. We want to lessen the blow, find a silver lining, or fix the unfixable. But reassurances like “Everything happens for a reason” gloss over pain and can deepen the feeling of isolation after loss.
Acknowledge your friend’s loss and meet them where they are in the grieving process. Rather than running away from their discomfort, try sitting with it. You don’t have to fill every silence. But don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you’re afraid of the answer. Just be sure to stick around to hear it.
Resist projecting your own experience onto others. Too often mainstream notions of grief fail to appreciate how people from different backgrounds, cultures, and religions respond to loss. Let your friend be their own best expert on how to move forward.
It’s important to make space to remember the people we’ve lost. The late best-selling author and health care reform advocate Elizabeth Edwards once gave an interview in which she talked about how friends hesitated to bring up her son who had died1. They didn’t want to remind her of one of the most painful chapters in her life. The truth was, she hadn’t forgotten about that chapter. She never would. And she loved knowing that others remembered her son fondly too.
Ask questions about the people your friends have lost. Try openers like “Tell me about your mom…” or “I wish I’d had the chance to meet your friend Tim. What’s one of your favorite stories about him?”
Don’t try to force these conversations, and always follow your friend’s lead. But remember that not every memory is sad, and conversations about those we’ve lost don’t have to be either.
Losing someone we love is deeply unmooring. Suddenly, the world feels different. We look for reassurances that we haven’t lost everything we had the day before.
Show your grieving friends that you’re still there for them. Offer to treat them to a movie or go on a hike—an activity that you would have done in the past but that doesn’t require a lot of conversation. Some people choose to keep themselves busy after loss. Don’t try to stop them. Instead, ask how you can help. Above all, follow their cues.
When it comes to grief, the initial period of intense mourning only tells part of the story. The way people experience grief changes over time, but there’s no such thing as going back, moving on, or getting over it. Years later, people may no longer identify as grieving, but they remain no less affected by the experience of losing someone they love.
Your friends will need your ongoing support as they navigate their loss. Make sure to continue small acts of kindness to remind them that you’re still thinking of them as the surge of initial attention after loss fades.
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A psychology professor has made it his goal to understand how people respond to illness and death. He shares ways that we can help ourselves, our friends, and our families grieve.