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TIP SHEET: How to Help a Grieving Friend

 I’ve counseled hundreds of people who are grieving the death of a loved one and I have seen first hand how influential a mourner’s support system (friends, family, coworkers and neighbors) is to their ability to cope with the loss. Unfortunately, because grief is stigmatized and misunderstood by our society, even close friends of the mourner may feel awkward and ill equipped to provide support or assistance to their grieving friend. They want answers to such questions as, “What do I say?” “What should I do?” and “How can I show my concern without making them more upset?” Indeed, these questions are important because when a mourner perceives that her support system does not understand her grief, it can amplify the feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and despair that she is already experiencing. I offer the following information so that we may begin to bridge the gap between mourners and their friends.

RESPECT THE UNIQUENESS OF EACH INDIVIDUAL. What feels helpful and supportive to one person may seem like an intrusion to another. Many factors can influence this including, where someone is in their grief and the type and context of the relationship you have with the mourner (co-worker, neighbor, life-long friend). To complicate it more, over time the same person may change regarding what they need and want in terms of outside support. The best way to wade through all these factors is to simply ask. Let the person know that you care and that you are open to hearing what “helpful” looks like for them. Here are some sample scripts you may want to try:
     -“I know this must be a difficult time for you. How can I be helpful?”
     -“ Is it OK to ask how you are dealing with the death or would you prefer that I wait for you to bring it up? Please know that I’m interested in how you are doing.”
     -“I want you to know that I’m thinking about you and I’m aware that this is a difficult time. Sometimes I don’t know how to be helpful or what to say. As we go about our work together, would you please let me know what helps you and what doesn’t?”

AVOID CLICHES. Though well intentioned, common phrases such as “He’s in a better place now”, “At least he lived a long life” and sometimes even, “I understand.” are often viewed as annoying and insensitive by the mourner. The felt need to say such things often arises out of our own discomfort with seeing another’s pain and our desire to fix it. It is better to simply show your respect for their situation and their feelings. Here are some examples of things you can say that will likely be received well by the mourner
     -“I wish I had a way to make this better for you.” 
     -“I know you are hurting in ways that I can’t even imagine. Please know that I care about how you are managing.”
     -“I want to say something helpful but I can’t seem to find the right words. Please just know I am sorry you are having to go through this.”

BE SEPCIFIC WHEN OFFERING YOUR SERVICES. Rather than saying, “If there is anything you need, let me know,” provide the mourner with a list of specifics such as dinner, lawn care, babysitting, errand running, a listening ear, etc. Write these things down on a card with your name and phone number and give it to your friend. Call periodically to remind them of your desire to help in the ways that you noted. If they take you up on your offer, thank them for allowing you to help since you are also reaping a psychological benefit. If they continually decline your offers, respectfully accept this. Don’t be pushy. 

UNDERSTAND SOME OF THE EXPECTED REACTIONS TO GRIEF.  Despite society’s insistence that mourners should simply “get over it and move on”, grief can affect all aspects of a person’s life. You may notice changes in a person’s thinking abilities, behaviors, physical well-being and spirituality, not to mention their emotions. If you are unfamiliar with the expected reactions to grief, educate yourself so that you can better understand your friend’s experience.

REMEMBER THAT BEREAVEMENT IS A LONG PROCESS. It is inspiring to see how communities can rapidly mobilize to provide support to a grieving family immediately following the death. Such support is tremendously valuable at this time. Very often, however, this support subsides soon after the death and community members resume their lives as before. Unfortunately, this is often the same time that the initial shock experienced by mourners begins to wear off and the reality of the loss begins to sink in. Continued support, therefore, can be especially useful at this time. Bear in mind that holidays, birthdays and anniversary dates are also often difficult for a bereaved person. And while you may have heard that the first year following a loss is the hardest, know that the pain of grief typically extends well beyond the first year. 

REMEMBER THAT YOU CAN'T FIX IT. Just accepting someone as they are in their grief is a valuable gift. This is often best communicated with patience and the ability to listen in a non-judgmental fashion. If your concern for someone is overwhelming you or if you are worried that your friend has chosen some dangerous coping skills, kindly suggest they seek assistance from a professional with experience in grief counseling. 

Therapists can assist a grieving person in ways that friends can’t, but the reverse is also true. The value of a present, patient and understanding friend cannot be overstated. Likewise, those who are in grief have much to teach us. The grief experience is fertile ground for personal growth and you can also benefit through actively supporting a friend in grief.

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