It can be hard to know what the right thing is to say to and do for a person who is grieving. There’s no way to take the pain away, but there are ways that one can offer support. Can you describe some of the most effective ways to offer emotional support to a grieving person?
First, remember that there is no single "right" or "perfect" thing to say to a person that has suffered the heartbreak of losing someone significant to them. Grieving people truly don't need to hear a perfect greeting card sentiment from others -- those sentiments often don't match up with or really speak to the messy feelings they're experiencing, anyway.
Generally, the most effective ways to offer emotional support to a grieving person is to listen to them and to be simply and fully present -- with compassion, without judgment. Presence does not need to be in-person -- yes, it can be spending time with that person, but it can also be a phone call or text to know that you're thinking about them and available to talk any time, or an offer of practical help like walking their dog or picking up their kids from school.
If difficult situations arise, such as the grieving person experiencing feelings of anger, hopelessness, or regret, what can a concerned person do to be helpful and consoling in such circumstances?
Let your friend know that all of these feelings are normal after the loss of someone who meant a lot to them and that there is no shame in experiencing any of these feelings. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but unfortunately our culture tends to condone "acceptable" expressions of grief (like relatively time-limited sadness) and discourage "unacceptable" expressions (like anger, extended periods of depression, or even humor). Many grieving people get the message that being "strong" after a loss is the most important thing and that strength means not showing emotions. The reality is that stoicism does not equal strength. At the same time, just because a grieving person doesn't look sad, it doesn't mean that they're not processing their grief in their own real way.
What are some practical things you can do to offer support to someone who is grieving, e.g., make phone calls, help make arrangements, cook, do laundry, etc.?
These are all great ideas. Often, friends will offer help by saying, "Just let me know if you need anything." In reality, though, many grieving folks won't respond to this offer at all because they are hesitant to ask for help or because they may be too tired or overwhelmed to even think of things with which they could use assistance. So, for many grieving people, it's a relief when you their friend says something more specific along the lines of, "I've got tomorrow afternoon free, and I want to help. Tell me what task is giving you the most trouble at the moment, and I will work on that with you." Or, "I'm thinking you might be able to use a hand with laundry or cooking or cleaning. Tell me which of those tasks I can do for you today."
What advice do you have around paying attention to and respecting the grieving person’s personal process?
Your willingness to listen and be truly present for your friend means being able to witness and fully accept expressions of their grief that we as a culture tend to find uncomfortable -- sadness, regret, anger, lethargy, loss of focus or purpose, mania, and many other things that fall under the category of "normal" reactions to the loss of a loved one. Let your friend give the cues and set the tone of each interaction. Some days they may just want to sit on the couch and reminisce and cry. Some days they may want to do anything but cry -- they might want to go out to do something fun and have some relative relief from their sadness for a little while. Let your friend know that you're ok with whatever mood they're in that day and that you're happy to be along for the ride.
Do you have any tips for things not to say or do when trying to console someone who is grieving?
When consoling a grieving friend, in general it's helpful to talk less and listen more. Every person's experience of grief is different, so standard advice rarely helps. Grieving people report getting lots of well-meaning guidance and platitudes (i.e., "Time heals all wounds," "You've got to stay busy") from other people, but these are rarely helpful to the grieving person. Meanwhile, many grieving people report that others avoid them or stop calling them because they're "so afraid to say the wrong thing" or don't want to "stir up sad feelings." Grief is often a very isolating experience as it is. While it's natural to not want to inadvertently make your grieving friend feel worse, the truth is that they probably already experience painful feelings much of the time and feel a strong sense of alienation as a grieving person -- so you reaching out to them is valuable because it helps them know that while they may feel alone in their grief, you will continue to be there to support them through it.
Do you recommend continuing to check in on the person even after the initial phase of grief has passed? In what ways can you continue to be supportive to the person after the funeral or memorial services, or further down the road, such as around sensitive dates like the late person’s birthday or the anniversary of the death?
Absolutely. Contrary to popular belief, grief does not move in a linear fashion, with the pain minimizing steadily with each passing day. In actuality, some elements of grief often actually get harder later down the road, when the reality of loss begins to settle in. Each day, week, and month after a loved one's death can be its own unpredictable animal -- some days easier, some harder. While survivors may be flooded with calls and condolence cards in the period soon after the death, they often find that these demonstrations of concern (and phone calls) often dry up even as certain hard realities of the loss are still unfolding. While for the rest of the world the passage of time might suggest that the grieving person should now be able to "move on," for a person who is grieving, the days passing means coming of anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and a whole slew of other dates that have a new and painful significance since their loved one's death. As a friend of the grieving person, keeping track of these meaningful dates can help you anticipate especially difficult days in your friend's life. . . but simply making sure that you check in with them regularly (and not just in those first days and weeks after the immediate loss) will help them immensely. Remember that there's no specific formula for being a good friend to a grieving person -- simply being fully present for your friend through the seasons of their grief will make all the difference in the world to them.
Meg Kelleher, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and therapist at the Center for Grief Recovery in Chicago, Illinois.
The Center Expands Again! Please join us in welcoming Megan Kelleher, LCSW who comes to us with wonderfully empathic presence, and a broad range of helping skills. You can learn more about her by visiting our Therapists section or clicking on this link.
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