As we get (ahem) more mature, it's only natural to experience loss. Whether it's a parent, spouse, friend, child, or unborn baby, losing a loved one exposes the normally unimaginable fragility of life. While loss is universal, the way we deal with it is personal. There's no handbook on how to handle heartache. As such, when someone we love is dealing with grief, it can be hard to articulate anything other than "sorry for your loss".
My neighbor recently lost her father. One of the things we had bonded over was that both of our dads had lung cancer. My dad made it, but when hers passed, I wasn't sure what to say. Even though I'd never met him, it was almost as if the pain were too close. The shoe could have easily been on the other foot. Since I didn't know what to say, I didn't say anything. After about a week of feeling guilty for not even bringing over a hot dish, I messaged her saying "grief is a bitch. I'm down the road if you need anything." Not the most eloquent way to express my feelings, but it did the job. When I finally saw her in person, I got to tell her how sorry I was about her daddy. She said she was glad he wasn't suffering anymore.
When I found out that a longtime friend had experienced a miscarriage, I clammed up. You can't say "at least she's not suffering" about an unborn infant. When I saw her, I avoided the topic altogether. I was so worried about saying the wrong thing that I didn't say anything at all, which was worse!
As military widow Monica Bobbitt says, "The truth is there is nothing you can say that will take away your friend’s pain. There are no magic words you can say that will fix it, you can’t fix the unfixable. But there are some things you can say (or do) to provide much-needed comfort to a bereaved friend during a terribly difficult time."
Below are some ways I've found to honor a loved one's loss so you don't end up tongue-tied like I was in the face of tragedy. These are just suggestions—the important thing is to be vulnerable and speak from the heart. Don't get caught up with trying to say or do the right thing—just be supportive.
Your friend may want to spill their guts, or they may want to talk about literally anything else than what they're going through. Understand how your friend is grieving honors their individual process. Psychology Today says, "For some people in grief, keeping memories, words, songs, names, alive is the way they get through. For others, though, the opposite is true."
Instead of saying "let me know if you need anything," ask how you can help. Better yet, don't ask, just do. Do the dishes or get some groceries. As Bobbitt explains, "Even the simplest of tasks can be overwhelming to someone who is grieving. Avoid the tendency to ask the bereaved what they need you to do because, in all honesty, they likely don’t even know what they need you to do."
When my mom died I didn't have anything suitable to wear to her funeral, so my bestie took me shopping for a new LBD. Another friend ordered catering so I didn't have to worry about how I was going to feed the constant barrage of visitors.
Let your friend know that they are not alone and that you will get through this together. In Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong, Psychology Today notes that "During this time of change, it’s important to remember what has not changed." Like a lot of other things in life, showing up is one of the most important things you can do. If possible, "be there" for your friend by literally being there. Listen. Bring a box of Kleenex.
Dutch psychology and spirituality professor, writer, priest, and theologian Henri Nouwen is quoted as saying, "When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate now knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares."
Instead of telling your friend that everything is going to be okay, tell them that it's totally normal and fine to be a complete mess. It's alright to cry—feelings just want to be felt. Acknowledging and accepting your emotions is a major step to recovery.
In his book, Living Life After Death, author, motivational speaker, and counselor Dr. Cornelius D. Jones observes that "Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it." Dr. Jones advises that "The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing."
When mom died, I took solace in getting photos together for a video that they showed at her visitation. The line was out the door all evening. I didn't recognize many of the faces, especially out of context and in my sad state, but I appreciated every person who came up to offer their condolences and share their memories of my mother. It reminded me that this was not only my personal pain—she meant so much to so many others.
As Bobbit puts it, "When someone we love dies, they leave a vast void in their stead. Where life once existed, now only memories. Those memories suddenly become our most precious possessions. We gather them close to our hearts and replay them over and over on a loop; like a movie reel of a life. We cling to them desperately, hoard them even, for they are all we have left of the person we lost." Comfort your friend by reminiscing about the good times.
Simple. Helpful. True.
Only bust out this bad boy if you get the feeling that your friend is blaming themselves for what happened. It's natural to look for a reason and in the absence of one to internalize blame and feel guilty that perhaps you could've done more. Even if that were the case, the past has passed and there's nothing that can be done now. As Psychology Today puts it, "Death has medical and physical causes—causes that aren’t our fault or, usually, anyone else’s."
When a child dies, never say, "You can always have another one."
Don't assume that your friend shares your beliefs. "They're in a better place now" doesn't jibe with atheists. The same goes for "thoughts and prayers" platitudes. Instead, say, "thinking of you".
And finally, What's your Grief's infographic on What Not to Say to a grieving friend notes, "Only the grieving person can decide how and when they will find comfort and meaning in their loss. Walk beside them, do no try to lead."