Our perspectives on grief are both professional and personal because our son died at age 17 from a progressive neurological disorder, so we’ve experienced first-hand what is helpful and what is not. Here are some responses we would suggest to provide support for someone who is grieving:
- Be present. The most helpful people to us in our grieving process were those who showed up without any need to “make us feel better” (which is more for the helper than for the grieving individual). They didn’t talk; they were just there with us. They sat beside us and were comfortable with our silence and our pain.
- Don’t ask what they need from you or say, “Call us if you need us.” The initial process of grief most closely resembles shock. The grieving individual has no idea what they need, and even if they did know, they most likely wouldn’t be able to voice their needs coherently. If you want to do something for the grieving person, such as taking care of their laundry or mowing their grass, do it. If you wait to be asked, it won’t happen.
- Don’t disappear. The worst part of our grief was after the shock passed, three weeks or maybe a month after Cody’s death. But by that time, all our friends had moved on with their lives, because for them, life was “back to normal.” It is not normal for the grieving person, and it will never be normal for them again. Showing up when most people have moved on is one of the kindest things you can do.
- Be aware of holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. The times around special occasions are full of joyous memories, which for someone grieving can be excruciatingly painful. Call the grieving person both before and on those days. Plan something pleasant where you can share time with your friend. Some individuals want to honor their loved one on the anniversary of their death or on their birthdays and being willing to share in those experiences can be very meaningful.
- Don’t offer platitudes. “They are in a much better place” may be true, but it isn’t helpful. In fact, those types of phrases feel like you are minimizing or negating the individual’s pain. The fact that their loved one is in a better place or is finally at peace or is no longer suffering doesn’t change the fact that the grieving person is suffering from the loss of their loved one’s presence. Grief feels like an amputation: a part of yourself has been cut off and is gone. You wouldn’t say, “Your leg is in a better place” if someone lost a limb.
- Don’t say, “I understand how you feel.” Even if you have experienced a significant loss, even one similar to your friend’s loss, their experience of grief is unique. It is, in fact, a one-of-a-kind experience, because their relationship with their loved one was one-of-a-kind.
- Listen more than speak. If your friend does want to talk about their loss, be a caring and supportive listener. You don’t have any words that can help, but your kind and attentive listening says you care, shows them you are there for them, and allows them the space to express their pain.