For many of us, comforting someone in their time of grieving the loss of a loved one can be very challenging. Our first response is to say something, but we worry about saying the wrong thing. This is a concern I have often heard through the course of my practice. Through my time with my patients, here are a few things I have learned along the way from my grieving patients and from those who want to offer their comfort and support.
Comforting Things to Say to a Grieving Friend
I had a patient once share with me how upset it made her that people kept saying “I’m sorry for your loss;” she said, “Loss? If he were lost, I would go find him. He’s gone.”
If you are struggling with what to say, simply say that. It is better to not say anything, rather than to say the wrong thing. I recommend saying instead: I don’t know what to say, but I would be glad to listen. Silence can be a very treasured space. People often feel obligated to say something in order to fill the silence, but even the physical presence of another person in the room can be comforting to someone who is feeling very alone. This silence you are intentionally creating is opening up room for them to talk, and you to just listen.
Showing a sign of sympathy and compassion can go a long way. I suggest telling someone: "I’m so sorry you are hurting." When an individual hears the same statements over, and over again, it starts to sound empty. Instead, I suggest trying to say something that sounds more personal and genuine. For example: "I’m sorry (name) is gone; I miss (pronoun) too."
I have heard time and time again, a grieving person’s greatest fear is that people will forget about their person. In my experience, people want to talk about their person, as talking about them, is the best way to honor their legacy, so do not be afraid to ask about their loved one. I find it is most thoughtful to use the individual’s name when you talk about their person. Gently ask questions about their person, if you do not know them well.
Things to Avoid Saying When Someone is Grieving
Get rid of "at least" statements: “at least you had 50-years of marriage together,” and “at least he’s in a better place now.” These statements force us into a false agreement with ourselves, and our grief. They force us to dismiss our pain, stuff down our feelings, and focus on the facts. The truth is, 50-years is not even close to enough to a grieving person, and there is no better place than by their side. Grieving the death of a loved one is sad. It is understandable to be sad. We should allow them their time to be sad. We cannot force ourselves out of how we feel; anytime we force something, it never fits.
Offer to Do Something Specific
A grieving individual is struggling with so many different thoughts and emotions, and completing even the simplest of tasks can seem daunting. If you can, offer to help them, but do not merely ask what they need; they are too overwhelmed to plan how you can help. I recommend making a suggestion. Offer to bring over dinner, run an errand, walk their dog, or pick something up for them that is across town. In my experience, it is the inactions of individuals around the grieving person that hurt the most. No one wants to feel alone, and when people are avoiding them during their most vulnerable time, that can feel isolating.
Suggest Seeking Help if Needed
The state of bereavement is a natural response to loss, but it is when a person is consumed by their loss, it becomes important for us to act, and encourage them to seek help. If your child was struggling with math, you would get them a tutor, right? Why not get a therapist? Why not attend a grief group? Thinking we could navigate all these feelings alone is very brave, but not always realistic.
Grief is Ongoing
We need to let go of the notion that grief just ends; that we can attach a time limit or expiration date to our suffering. Grief is ongoing; it’s evolving, changing; some days are great, and some days are just miserable. Treatment is a journey, not a destination, and so our grief needs to have the same compassionate handling. We have to learn how to change with our grief and allow are grief to sit with us, to come with us, not to control us. Once you have lived through losing the person you thought you could never live without, you can do anything.
If you are experiencing grief and would like to talk with a mental health therapist, find a provider today.