Death is an inevitable part of life. As we become adults and form strong bonds with others, from friends to coworkers, our roles as supportive figures when death occurs become stronger and more defined. But how do we do it properly? Knowing how to help a grieving friend is a tricky thing; we can't make it all better, mend the issue, take them on a vacation that whisks it to the back of their minds, or do many of the other actions that otherwise define crisis friendship. It has its own unique patterns and requirements, and that can really test both a friendship and the grieving itself.
Essentially, the process of helping somebody to grieve means stepping out of the way as much as possible and facilitating their grieving in a healthy, supportive way, one that doesn't negate their emotions or force them to work on anybody else's timetable. If you've never experienced loss or seen true grief before, this can be confusing; the tearing-hair-out, weeping-continuously-for-days model from daytime TV is neither universal nor particularly realistic, and understanding the true depths and complexities of a grieving person takes both work and empathy. It's often the little things; the University of Sheffield points out, for instance, that significant days the person may have shared with a loved one, like anniversaries, may be very difficult and should be remembered, and that it's OK to let them tell the same stories about their grief over and over again.
Here are seven tips to help a grieving friend, taken from bereavement associations, psychology, and recommendations from grieving people themselves. The biggest lesson of all? When a grieving person is talking to you, listen.
1. Don't Ignore What's Happening
It can be exceedingly tempting to just tiptoe around the issue altogether, particularly if you're uncomfortable with death yourself, and try to "cheer the person up" by discussing inane topics/the election/the weather/why Victoria Beckham never seems to smile. It's generally agreed, though, that this is the wrong approach. What's called "acknowledging" the loss of the person you're comforting is a very important part of supporting them; the decisions you make together about what they need can be done after you've openly discussed what's happened. The psychological service Help Guide has a few tips on sentences you can use, including the blanket "I hear your xxxx died; I'm so sorry".
2. Understand What Bereavement Means
The Royal Society of Psychiatrists explains that the concept of "grief" is not in fact a one-sided or unilateral experience; people go through it differently, and your style of grief may not be connected with or similar to what a friend or family member feels, even if you're grieving the same sort of thing. The Royal Society points out that feelings can be particularly difficult and anguished if the loss involved suicide, but any grieving process will likely involve numbness, anger, yearning, bleakness, recurrent episodes of sadness, and the possibility of guilt or frustration.
It's important not to generalize about the experience of grief, either from your own life or from what you believe is culturally appropriate or necessary; allowing them to experience their emotions and giving them space to do that is part of your job. That includes letting them "get on with things;" if somebody wants to get out of bed, go to work and function properly, it's not your job to try and get them to sit down and cry.
3. Remember That This Is Not About You
This is an interesting one, but it crops up in quite a lot of psychological advice about assisting the grieving. People never really consciously try to make the bereavements of others about them (unless they're narcissistic, toxic, or completely lacking in empathy), but we can all unconsciously take over a situation. Whether it's determining what we think is right for the grieving person to do, talking about our own experience instead of listening to theirs, or trying to be the Best, Kindest Friend and earn praise for it, it's important to realize that this isn't your moment. Your job is as a quiet, possibly completely silent pillar of strength, not a main character; counsellor Megan Devine for The Huffington Post calls it being "a supporting role, not the central role".
4. Give Specific Offers Of Help
"I'm here for you" is all very well and good, but what people dealing with bereavement often need — in the midst of a time that is often confusing, fraught, full of bureaucracy and decisions, and generally hideously complicated — is concrete help. The writer Joan Didion wrote in her memoir The Year Of Magical Thinking , of the period after her husband died, that one of her biggest memories after his sudden death was a friend, unprompted, getting her congee to eat from an NYC store, as she wasn't able to prepare or eat food. And the terrible, beautiful memoir of the stillbirth of author Elizabeth McCracken's son, An Exact Copy Of A Figment Of My Imagination , highlights the friends who offered to deliver the news of the death to as many people as possible.
Ask what you can do. Provide food; sort out papers; talk to doctors; fold sheets; do the laundry. Get involved in a practical sense while the grieving person does the work of trying to remain afloat.
5. Keep The Support Going After A Month
This is the other half of the above advice; resources and offers of practical assistance often trickle dry after the first shock has worn off, but long before the actual functioning of the grieving person is close to normal again. Pamela Cytrynbaum, writing on "catastrophic grief" for Psychology Today, advises: "Do continue visiting and calling after a month or two. Everybody abandons you after that. Everything stops when the numbness and shock wear off and there you are, in your life, but not. The calls and visits and efforts from friends at that point were incredibly helpful and welcome." If you're not a talking person, keep doing practical things when needed; the Marie Curie organization that focuses on cancer support mentions cleaning toilets, for instance.
6. Allow Them To Be Broken And Vulnerable
This is not like a break-up. It's not like after a few days a grieving person can be shaken at the shoulders and told forcibly to get some sunshine and cheer themselves up. Essentially, it's OK to let grieving friends be a mess for a bit. Their messiness may not be familiar, or particularly easy to understand, or even consistent; they may have days when they seem like they're "back to normal". But Psych Central explains that the timeline of grief is radically uncertain and differs wildly from person to person, and that reassuring somebody of how "strong" they are may be counterproductive when they're feeling deeply vulnerable and upset.
7. Stay Away From Rationalizing Or Explaining Loss
You may well believe that this death is part of God's plan, or that the person is better off in Heaven, or that everything happens for a reason; but it is kindest and most graceful to keep those beliefs to yourself, no matter how comforting you think they may be to the person who is suffering from the loss. Unless they themselves express those beliefs to you, rationalizing or explaining a loss to a grieving person is not acceptable social behavior. As the organization Cancer Care puts it, delicately, "Words that are meant to console the bereaved can in some cases have the opposite effect." In other words, you run a high risk of looking insensitive, even if you're trying your hardest to help.