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My friend is grieving. What if I say the wrong thing?

August 11, 2019

We don’t think twice about supporting our friends with advice on relationships, jobs, parenting and finance, but when we want to help a friend in mourning, we often second guess ourselves. Instinctively want to ease their pain, but we can’t bring the deceased back, and we become tongue-tied over saying “the right thing”.  Don’t let your feelings of awkwardness stop you from offering support.

Here are some guidelines that grief counsellors recommend to help someone in mourning:

Appreciate that everyone grieves differently.
Grief is unique to each individual and each loss. Siblings will react differently to the death of a parent, and friends are touched differently by the loss of a mutual friend. Unless we are told, we can’t know exactly how a mourner feels. Avoid saying “I know how you feel” even if you empathize with their loss because you have suffered a similar loss. Let them tell you how they feel.

Be honest about your feelings.
Tell them that you feel for them. If you don’t know what to say, then say “I don’t know what to say” or “I wish I had the right words”. Grievers are absorbed with thoughts of the deceased and you don’t need to avoid talking about them. Their loss is after all the elephant in the room and it may console your friend if you share your memories of their loved one and the impact they had on you.

Posing an open-ended question such as “how do you feel?” or “do you feel like talking about it?” could be a relief or it might be overwhelming.  Take cues from your friend as to whether they want to talk about their loss or whether your company alone speaks volumes. Lend a listening ear. Listening affirms their feelings.

Don’t minimize their loss.
In our desire to comfort we may be tempted to minimize the death with phrases like “at least he isn’t in pain anymore” or “at least she lived a good, long life”.  These well-meaning statements discredit the mourner’s grief. Let them be sad.

Avoid judgement.
Grief can stir a myriad of emotions such as regret, guilt, remorse, anger, sorrow, isolation, despair and shock. People in mourning may also be exhausted from stress and loss of sleep. This is natural and shouldn’t be trivialized.   Advice like “be strong” implies the mourner’s feelings are a sign of weakness. Grief isn’t a weakness, it’s a healthy emotion.

Squeezing a hand, touching a shoulder, and leaning in to listen all convey your understanding and support.

Offer concrete gestures of help.
“How can I help?” puts a burden on the griever to respond. It’s more helpful to suggest “can I bring you dinner this Thursday?”, “can I take your kids to swim class?”.  Sending a condolence note by snail mail stands out as a heartfelt gesture.

Appreciate that grief doesn’t have an expiration date.
“Closure” is an out-dated term which was used to imply that at a certain point a mourner would “get back to normal”. Today we appreciate that grief lingers and morphs over time as hope and gratitude mix with sorrow. Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and other special occasions can trigger the ache of loss. Reaching out on those dates can mean a lot.

And I’d like to add…
Trust your intuition.
We shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to be grief counsellors, but don’t let any awkwardness cause you to shy away from supporting a friend. Reach out with a note or a touch, a listening ear or a heartfelt conversation. You don’t need to be perfect, just present and you can’t go wrong by offering sympathy and a safe space for them to be sad.