When someone you know loses a loved one to death, you want to reach out, but may feel unsure of what to say or do. Here is some advice:
– Don’t agonize over what to say. Keep it simple and heartfelt – for example, “I’m so sorry,” “My heart goes out to you,” “I’m here for you” or perhaps even “I’m at a loss for words.” Avoid platitudes such as “It’s for the best” or “You still have a lot to be thankful for.”
– Let your friend do the talking and listen attentively and non-judgmentally. Resist the urge to give advice or recount your own experiences. Be prepared for repetition – this is part of working through grief.
– Accept silence. Sometimes a bereaved person may not feel like talking but would nonetheless appreciate companionship. Remember, too, that body language – a touch of your hand, a pat on the shoulder or a hug – can also express support and caring, often better than words.
– Keep in mind that grief affects people emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically, and that, although there may be similarities, no two people grieve alike.
– Don’t underestimate the pain your friend is experiencing and don’t discourage tears or urge to “be strong.” Don’t try to withhold your own tears, either; they’re merely a sign that you care.
– Share memories of your friend’s loved one – kind or funny things he did or words of wisdom he shared with you.
– Find a favorite photo of the deceased person, frame it and give it to your friend.
– Offer to pray together.
– Encourage your friend to practice self-care, getting adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep and scheduling regular medical checkups, as well as avoiding unnecessary stress. Discourage the use of alcohol or medication as a coping mechanism.
– Offer to help in practical ways, such as fielding phone calls, preparing meals, shopping for groceries or running errands. Make concrete offers (for example, “I’m going to the grocery store – what can I get you?”) or simply go ahead and do things like deliver a casserole or mow a lawn.
– Many newly bereaved people experience a spiritual crisis, so don’t be alarmed if this happens with your friend. Listen patiently and empathically to doubts and fears. If they persist, encourage your friend to speak with their pastor (or yours, if they aren’t affiliated with a congregation).
After the funeral
– Continue to stay in touch after the funeral is over. That’s when the reality of the loss – with all its implications – sets in, and bereaved people need support more than ever.
– Don’t act as if everything is OK. This makes it hard for your friend to open up if they feel the need.
– Don’t avoid the subject of the deceased person or mention of his name. It’s comforting to the bereaved to know that others still remember their loved one as time goes by.
– Be patient. Since grief saps energy, take the initiative in the relationship for now, calling and arranging visits.
– Recognize that timelines for healing vary from one person to the next.
– Don’t pressure your friend into doing things they don’t feel ready for, such as sorting through and disposing of a loved one’s belongings.
– Discourage friends from making major life changes – such as relocating – for the time being, unless absolutely necessary.
– Encourage your friend to seek professional help if they’re unable to function in day-to-day life (suggestive of clinical depression), or if they appear to be stuck in one of the phases of grieving (for example, denial or anger).
– Remember special occasions throughout the year that are likely to be difficult: birthdays, wedding anniversaries and holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as the anniversary of death. Call or send a card to let your friend know you’re thinking about them. Consider a memorial Mass card to mark the anniversary of death.
Above all, keep in mind that bereaved people don’t expect friends to provide answers to difficult, often philosophical questions – such as “why did this happen?” – or to take away their pain.
What they do want and need is the comfort of knowing they are not alone.
Lisa M. Petsche is a clinical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and spiritual matters.