When someone you are close to experiences a loss, it can be horrible not knowing how to comfort them. We instinctively want to wrap our arms around our loved one: to absorb their pain and help share the burden of their suffering. Yet knowing how to do this can seem an impossible feat when we cannot fully understand what they are going through. Loss and grieving is a unique experience and it can be easy to say something with the best will in the world that instead comes across as insensitive or insincere. In this blog we explore some of the ways you can show a grieving friend your love and support whilst avoiding the more common pitfalls.
1. Don’t hesitate
When a friend is grieving and experiencing pain, it can be easy to take a momentary step back so as to gather your thoughts and prepare for how best to handle the situation. This is not an altogether bad decision, although if temporary inaction leads to a lengthier delay as you begin to second guess and overthink, it has the potential to cause further pain. Whilst no one would fault you for wanting to take the time to make sure you say and do the right thing, sometimes your immediate support will be more effective than ‘getting it right’. It will be immensely reassuring for your friend to know you are thinking of them whilst they are grieving, so even if you make the odd blunder with your show of support, don’t hesitate to reach out and to do so from the get go.
2. Be patient
Just as important as showing your support swiftly is maintaining this support throughout your friend’s grieving process, and recognising that healing is rarely linear. There is no set timeline for how long it will take your friend to recover from their loss and reminding them that you are still there for them will be immensely helpful as the months pass. You do not need to do this by repeatedly trying to engage in a heartfelt conversation or by offering some grand gesture: anything as simple as a text message telling them ‘I’m thinking of you’ is likely to be all the reminder they need that you are still aware of their grief and there for them, even when the rest of the world might appear to be moving on. Your patience will reassure them that their grief is valid, no matter how many months or years have passed since their loss.
3. Be realistic
When we see a friend who we care about grieving, we are often so desperate to heal their pain that we clutch at platitudes and try to get them to focus on whatever positive outlook we can scrabble together for them. Whilst this is done with the best of intentions, your friend will be acutely aware of how painful the situation actually is and any attempt to point them towards ‘silver linings’ with false optimism will be unlikely to help. In fact, it may even seem as though you are trying to skirt around the reality of their loss and in doing so, cause them further aggravation. So, if your friend is clearly going through the ringer and hurting because of it, why not try acknowledging how rubbish the situation really is. They will take comfort in the practical recognition of their pain, realising that you are standing by them regardless of the storm.
4. Be quiet and listen
In much the same way that you should try to hold back from offering unrealistic comfort, be mindful of also offering too much comfort altogether. Often we rush into uncomfortable conversations with the aim of making the other person feel better, and in doing so feel that we must fill the silences with words of reassurance. This can lead us to talk more than is required and sometimes even over the other person. Instead of hastening to find solutions for your friend, try sitting with them quietly and listening to what they have to say. Even if their thoughts and words are not forthcoming, your presence alone could be all the comfort they need at that time, and it might be infinitely more reassuring than frustrating, albeit well-meant, attempts at distraction.
5. Be practical
Following the immediate aftermath of a loss, it is not uncommon for the bereaved to struggle with even the most routine and simple of daily tasks. Offering to assist with any of these can be a sure way of showing your support whilst additionally providing your friend with much-needed, practical help. You could suggest: to collect their children from school; help with the cooking or shopping; assist with the planning of the funeral or with hosting their friends after the service, or even to go with them to have the death certificate signed. Whether you view the task as little or large, your assistance will show your friend you care and might be the deciding factor between that task being successfully completed or postponed.
6. Remember they are your friend
Whether permanently or temporarily, grief can change a person, and recent loss can certainly alter the way you interact with them on a daily basis. Yet however respectful you must be of their pain and their ability to function as you would have previously deemed ‘normally’, try to remember that first and foremost they are your friend and that they would want you to treat them as such. Nothing will be as isolating or as alienating as your best friend suddenly treating you like fragile chinaware and excluding you from normal conversation, so, to a certain extent, try to act around them as you would have before their loss.
7. Be vigilant and reactive to their queues
Of course, trying to treat your friend as you would have before their loss and including them in normal conversation can still have its limits. Don’t, for example, arrive at their home and immediately expect them to feel comfortable hearing a debrief on last night’s date. Do, however, look out for queues from them that they are happy to move the conversation away from their loss and onto the more mundane topic of other daily happenings. This will require a certain level of emotional intelligence and tact, but if you remain vigilant you should be able to note queues from their responses and questions that will help you navigate the conversation appropriately. Telling your friend small anecdotes from your morning shop or relaying a funny remark made by your next door neighbour might provide sufficient, light-hearted relief from an otherwise monotonous theme of grief.
8. Don’t compare your own experience
One of the most common displays of empathy is trying to relate to the person’s grief and often we do this by comparing a situation we believe to be similar to their own. Yet again, whilst this is usually done with good intentions, it may cause further hurt as no two experiences of loss are truly the same: the pain of losing your grandmother may have been vast, but it will not be the same pain your friend feels for losing their father, mother, son, or even their own grandmother. Try to avoid comparisons in case they unintentionally belittle your friend’s grief or detract from the attention owed to it.
9. Avoid mentioning religion
Unless you know your friend’s beliefs inside and out, it is probably best to avoid mentioning religion when comforting them. Platitudes such as ‘they are in a better place now’ or ‘it was part of God’s plan’ might, at best, make it seem as though you are preaching to them, or at worst, that you are trying to impose your faith on them at a time when it is not appropriate.
10. Remember the dead
Finally, try to remember the person that your friend has lost, be it with your words or in your actions. You might be afraid to remind your friend of their loss by bringing the deceased up, but chances are the memory of them won’t be too far below the surface anyway. In fact, recounting your times together or recalling your happy memories of the deceased may help your friend in their healing by providing them with new memories of the deceased. If you did not personally know the deceased well, your friend may still appreciate you referring to them by name in conversation. Often our fear of distressing the bereaved leads us to avoid the topic of death and the deceased as though it were taboo. Remembering the dead and naming them in conversation will remind your friend that they are not forgotten and that they can talk about them with you when they feel like it.