How can you help a friend through grief?
Yesterday we celebrated what would have been my son’s 21st birthday. He never made it to see his first.
It’s almost ironic, but Christopher is the reason that I started writing and speaking. Way back in the late 1990s, I sold my first article to Today’s Christian Woman on how to help a grieving friend. When I started speaking at women’s retreats, I focused on my story with him, and on how I learned to say that God is enough.
God has obviously broadened my focus since then, but it is often in the things that hit our hearts the most that we start to write.
And so I was thinking of all the “good” that God has brought out of Christopher’s short life, including this ministry that I have. It makes everything almost bittersweet. It reminded me of this article, which first appeared in the 1999 November/December issue of Today’s Christian Woman. I’d like to share it with you today.
“If there’s anything I can do…”
I heard these words repeatedly three years ago on that rainy day when we buried our 29-day-old baby boy, Christopher. Most people who said them acted so awkwardly, I felt as though I had to cheer them up.
But others were more at ease. One friend, Anne, quietly shared how she was encouraged by our reliance on God during Christopher’s battle with a serious congenital heart defect. Another friend, Pam, e-mailed me, “I planted some violas for Christopher today, just outside my kitchen window.” While neither gesture was extravagant or profound, both shone some light on a very dark day.
Why do some people seem to know what to say to someone in pain, while the rest of us flounder?
Why do some people seem to know what to say to someone in pain, while the rest of us flounder?Click To Tweet
Being close to someone who’s heartbroken is difficult. We don’t want to compound her pain by saying the wrong thing, yet we earnestly desire to help lessen her suffering, just like Jesus, who came to “comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:2). When our heart breaks for someone else, we reflect God’s sadness. How can we also reflect God’s comfort? First we need to understand what comforting does—and doesn’t—involve.
Comforting Isn’t Explaining God’s Will
When Judy’s eight-year-old son, Kyle, was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection, a close relative wrote her to say God was punishing her for not attending church. Needless to say, the letter did little to encourage Judy.
The need to explain people’s suffering is natural. Even Jesus was asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus replied that things aren’t always so straightforward. In this case, the man’s blindness was so “the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). My friend Melissa confessed that when she first heard of Christopher’s illness, she believed it was a result of my husband’s previous involvement with Dungeons and Dragons role playing games. But when she gave birth to a stillborn son a year later, she apologized for judging us.
Comforting Isn’t Fixing the Problem
When Judith lost her daughter two weeks before her due date, many people assured her, “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Marilyn, who lost her son when she was 21 weeks pregnant, was likewise told, “At least you have children at home.” And my husband, who’s a pediatrician, often heard, “Think of what a better physician you’ll be after having such a sick child.” Trying to cheer people by telling them the character-building benefits of their suffering does little to comfort them. Those “benefits” can never compensate for the loss someone feels when a loved one dies.
Comforting isn’t explaining God’s will or fixing the problem; it’s making yourself available.Click To Tweet
Comforting Is Making Yourself Available
To comfort a friend is to focus on her feelings, not yours. Once we recognize we’re helpless to explain the problem or to fix it, we can concentrate instead on meeting our friend’s needs as best we can, perhaps in the following ways:
1. Comfort a Friend by Being There
We printed 70 programs for Christopher’s funeral, but we ran out long before the service began. The number of people who attended overwhelmed us. God used their presence to comfort us during that difficult time. When 9-year-old Randy died after an unsuccessful liver transplant, his mother, JoAnn, was moved when 16 intensive care nurses braved rainy, icy weather for 2 hours just to be at the funeral.
We often underestimate the impact our mere presence can have. But a hug, a pat on the arm, or attendance at a memorial service is often as valued as anything else.
2. Comfort a Friend by Listening
Listening involves encouraging your friend to express her feelings. Pam Vredevelt, author of Empty Arms, says many women find it easier to suffer in silence because others won’t initiate discussions about their loss. So if your grieving friend says, “I don’t know how I’m going to get out of bed tomorrow,” help her open up by asking her a question such as, “What’s the scariest part of facing your day?” Then really listen to her answer. Try responding in a way that allows your friend to express what she really feels.
3. Comfort a Friend by Telling Her How the Situation/Person Affected You
When Christopher died, I was left with a huge hole in my life—while others’ lives stayed the same. Telling a grieving person how you were affected by her loved one, even if it was only minimally, lets her know you feel her loss, too. Writing that memory on a card or in a letter is helpful. Over the last three years I’ve repeatedly turned to my cards for comfort.
4. Comfort Your Friend by Telling Her Your Prayers
In June 1998, Brenda’s husband, Rob, died suddenly in a car accident. They had three young daughters. The card Brenda found most uplifting explained in detail how her friend had been praying for Brenda and her daughters. When your prayers are wails, and despair is overwhelming, knowing others are lifting up the things you need can ease some of your burden.
5. Comfort Your Friend by Telling Your Story
When Christopher died, I was touched by all the women who came to me with their own stories of “empty arms” and babies lost. Being able to share with someone, “I remember when I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, let alone eat,” helps a friend know she’s not crazy, that others have also felt that kind of pain. Be cautious, however, about saying “I understand how you feel”; some people might find this presumptuous. Yet though every loss is different, you can share your stories to let people know they’re not alone. This is the heart of the apostle Paul’s urging to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
6. Comfort Your Friend by Offering Tangible Help
In the days following Christopher’s death, we were often asked, “Is there anything you need?” Admitting you need help, though, isn’t something I was entirely comfortable with, even when I was grieving. We don’t want people to think we can’t manage! So when my friend Raj said, “This Tuesday I’m bringing you and Keith dinner,” we had no choice—and we were grateful. We didn’t have to ask; it was just provided. The more specific your offer, the more likely someone will accept it.
7. Comfort Your Friend by Following Through
One of the hardest things about losing someone is that eventually everything on the outside returns to normal, while on the inside you still feel torn apart.
Grief doesn’t end when the funeral’s over. Though there are days when we almost forget our pain, there are others when the reality of our loss hits us all over again, just as it did those weeks, months, or even years ago. With time those days grow fewer and further between, but they still occur.
To make a special difference in someone’s life, follow through with your friends who mourn. Marilyn remembers with gratitude a woman from her church who sent her a card every few months, long after the others stopped coming. Send a card on the anniversary of someone’s death, or on what would have been a birthday or an anniversary. Or you could offer to baby-sit or prepare a special meal.
Don’t worry about this reminding your friends of their loss. The grief will always be there. As one woman who lost a child remarked in Carol Staudacher’s Beyond Grief: “It’s as though people believe if you’re not talking about your loss, you’re not thinking about it. That’s as ridiculous as assuming if you’re not thinking about breathing, you’re not doing it.” JoAnn says that eight years after her son Randy’s death, she still receives cards from several friends on the anniversary each March. It touches her to know others think of him, too.
Comforting someone who grieves can be scary, because it reminds us of our fears. But we don’t have to fix our friend’s problem or say anything profound. Comforting doesn’t have to be onerous. Make yourself available to meet your friend where she is. In doing so, you can surround her with love at a time when she feels most alone.
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“Right now, you’re searching for words of comfort because your heart is broken. But soon, this season of your life will come to an end. You will be in a new season. You’ll remember the past with love and a twinge of sadness…but if you allow yourself to heal, you will enjoy a new season in your life.”
I recently went to a memorial service for a special woman who impacted my life as a young girl. She was a good friend with my mom and I considered her an “aunt” even though we weren’t blood relatives. Her family and mine were close and her children were like my extended family since I have known them since I was six years old.
At the memorial for this wonderful woman, I was surrounded by love from others for her and the family, but also I was surrounded and filled with feelings of being that “young girl” again, living memories of being six years old and growing up with their family and mine together. There were other long time life friends in attendance as well, contributing to my feelings and memories of years past which I value and cherish. It is those people and shared experiences that have helped me become who I am today.
At this memorial it also brought back memories of my own mothers passing and the loss I felt and still feel. Fighting back my emotions and tears for the loss of the most important person in my life, my amazing mother, I was also aware of needing to be there for my “adopted” family members. And this got me to thinking. Grief is not something we want to experience, but will experience no matter what we want. Being alive means we are going to have loved one’s who pass on and strong emotions of mixed love, grief, loss, fear of what the future will be like without them, and more all combine into grief. Most of us don’t know what to say to another when they are experiencing their loss, not to mention how to manage our own emotions at the same time.
So one of the things I have found helpful is know that I don’t have to say anything supportive, but instead ask them what, or if there is anything, I can do to help them. Let them tell me what they need rather than me trying to figure out those things different to everyone who experiences grief. This gives both parties “ease” during this time.
I also know rituals are important in processing grief as well. Whether it is looking at pictures of the one who passed, talking about the person’s emotions and loss, sharing stories that make you laugh involving the person who passed, having a celebration of life event/party, writing poetry about the person, etc. Rituals are a passage “process” tool.
The main thing to remember is your love for the people who remain and for the person who has passed. Your very presence and hug may be all that is needed in some cases.
Here are eight ways to help you support your friend in times of need.
1. Let go of time expectations. …
2. Recognize the stages of grief. …
3. Recognize the variables to grief. …
4. Resist telling them how strong they are. …
5. Offer the bereaved ways to memorialize. …
6. Ask them what they need. …
7. Continue to check in on them. …
8. Recommend help.
1. Let go of time expectations.
The person grieving may struggle for longer than expected. If this happens, regardless of how frustrating or frightening it may be for you, let them grieve for however long they need, knowing you won’t judge them for it.
2. Recognize the stages of grief.
Most people suffering a loss will go through these stages, often in no particular order and sometimes repeating stages: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. Each one is healthy and necessary. The more familiar you are with these stages, the better equipped you’ll be to support your friend.
3. Recognize the variables to grief.
One person’s grief is never the same as another’s. Variables include the cause and length of death, the personal resiliency of the grieving person, what their previous experiences have been, how large their support network is and their relationship to the person lost. Be understanding of how this can change their experience of grief from your own or someone else you have known.
4. Resist telling them how strong they are.
We are often inclined to praise the person who appears to be coping stoically with a loss. The problem is that we need to allow them to be human and vulnerable sometimes, too. After all, there’s strength in letting out your emotions from time to time.
5. Offer the bereaved ways to memorialize.
Funerals and memorial services work to give support and closure to the bereaved. We can also memorialize in other ways, like planting trees, writing letters or having remembrance gatherings.
6. Ask them what they need.
It’s normal to feel you can guess what your friend needs based on what you might need in their position. Because we’re all different, it’s best to ask them what it is that you can do for them. If they say “I don’t know” or “nothing,” resist the desire to walk away in your frustration or worry. Just offer your support in whatever way you can and let them know that you will be there when they think of something.
7. Continue to check in on them.
At the time of a funeral, many people offer help and support to the grieving person. As the weeks and months pass everyone’s lives move forward and they generally forget to follow up on their offerings of help and support. Be the person who follows up. You don’t have to give all of your energy, but your caring will be appreciated and will provide untold comfort.
8. Recommend help.
There’s only so much a friend or family member can offer to someone who is grieving without putting too much strain on themselves. Gently suggest seeking therapeutic help to give them a special place to cope with their loss if they need to continue to talk about their emotions and others don’t want to hear anymore as they have processed their own grief.
Keep in mind that loss isn’t just felt through death. It can be the loss of a job, a divorce, the loss of an ideal or expectation and so much more. Loss is a difficult thing to work through and your role as a supporter is both unique and vital.
Grief – It is a personal and highly individual experience and how you grieve depends on:
*Your coping style and mechanisms
*Your life experience
*The nature of the loss
*What you have learned from others
SUPPORT COMES FROM…..
Turn to family and friends if you can lean and count on their support. Find those loved ones who support your grief and don’t avoid them. Accept their assistance and let them know what you need as they may want to help but don’t know how.
Turn to your faith and find comfort in its rituals, activities, and traditions. Praying, meditating, going to church and other spiritual activities are meaningful and help through the grief process. If you are questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to clergy or other religious community members who can help you.
Turn to a support group and join. Grief can be lonely and your sorrow is not always understood by others. So the support group provides environments where others are going through the same thing you are and can support you in your process. Contact your local hospital, hospices, funeral homes and counseling centers as resources for finding grief and loss support groups.
Turn to and talk to a grief counselor/therapist. An experienced and trained mental health professional can help you work through intense emotions and help you overcome obstacles in your grieving process.
Take care of yourself by:
Facing and expressing your feelings
Look after your physical health
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel
Don’t tell yourself how to feel
Plan ahead for grief triggers like “firsts” – anniversaries, Christmas/holidays, birthdays, etc. where the person will not be around. Plan “Honor” activities or ceremonies where you can talk about them and celebrate their life and your love for them.
GRIEF IS COMPLICATED
The grief you have for someone you have lost never completely goes away but it doesn’t remain center stage either. If the pain and loss is very constant and severe, if it interferes with your life resuming and you feel like you are stuck, then you may have a condition known as “complicated grief.” This is being stuck in a state of intense mourning, where you cannot accept the death long after it has occurred or are preoccupied with the person who died so that it disrupts and undermines your “living” life and other relationships. Seek help from a professional to assist you through this passage of life.
To help a friend means you need to be a friend. Don’t assume anything and be “present’ for them as they go through a difficult time and passage of life. I want to end this blog with my friends and “adopted” family who just lost their mother. I leave the quote I started with for you and want you to know I am here for you as you need me:
“Right now, you’re searching for words of comfort because your heart is broken. But soon, this season of your life will end. You will be in a new season. You’ll remember the past with love and a twinge of sadness…but if you allow yourself to heal, you will enjoy a new season in your life.”
For my “adopted family” – We honor your mother and her amazing impact on us all. For others who are currently experiencing their own loss – we honor your right to your personal grief and loss and hope you surround yourself with those who love and support you.
Method 1 Comforting a friend after a family member’s death
- Let your friend know that you’re there for them without conditions or expectations.
This is a difficult time for your friend and they need a lot of understanding. Avoid pressuring your friend to talk or discuss their feelings. It is far better to let your friend know that you are available if needed than to force them to talk to you about what has happened.
- Don’t pressure your friend or keep on asking how they feel. It’s self-evident that they don’t feel great.
Give your friend space. A quiet, non-talkative and tearful friend is still your friend but one likely to need his or her own space and time to process the emotions.
Avoid telling your friend how to behave during grief. Being told that there is a right and wrong way to feel through actions, statements and generalizations can be painful during the first stages of grieving, so try to keep your thoughts about grief to yourself and simply affirm that their feelings are valued, real and respected.
- Be a source of cheer and helpfulness.
This doesn’t mean telling them they’ll get over it soon! It means doing things more than saying things, bustling about in the background and being helpful by doing the things that need to be done. Things that you can help with include:
- Bringing over meals, tidying the house a little, doing some shopping for your friend, etc.
- Helping with funeral arrangements or contact people and companies to tidy up loose ends.
- Babysitting or pet-sitting to give your friend a break now and then.
- Taking your friend out for a day, away from all of the reminders.
Avoid bringing your own problems to your friend. This isn’t a good time to be loading off your problems onto your friend. He or she is in a fragile place right now and cannot be the usual sounding board you may have come to rely upon. Seek the help of another friend for this purpose, until your grieving friend feels whole again.
Know when to step away. Sometimes your friend will push you away. Go away without taking it personally. Realize that it is the grief talking and the grief acting out. Your friend may feel too overwhelmed to cope with the acts of friendship for the moment. Agree to back off for a bit but let your friend know it’s temporary, and that the moment they need you again, just to call.
Method 2 Comforting friends after a friend is lost to suicide
Realize that all of your group of friends is likely to be hurting and somewhat shaken. When someone decides to take their own life and is part of a tight-knit group, it deeply affects the people for whom they were so close to. They can feel as if their circle has been broken.
Seek to get a debriefing for all of the friends in your group. This isn’t something you should handle alone without suitable help. A school counselor, a therapist or some other person trained to assist with this challenging situation must be called upon for advice.
- Deal with your own feelings before trying to help others.
You have been impacted too and this will make it harder for you to act in a role of supporting your other friends. It is important, no matter how strong and protective you feel, that you also get help for your feelings and emotional outfall from the event.
- It is understandable that you want to help when you care deeply for your remaining friends but don’t neglect yourself in the process.
Devise a buddy network between each of you. Make it clear who is available at any time should any friend of the group need to talk, let feelings out or just be around someone. Be there for one another so that the emptiness, despair and black feelings can be dealt with rather than swallowing up an individual.
Use a calm and concerned tone at all times. Helping all of your friendship group to remain calm is an important approach to helping everyone feel that they can cope.
Let your friends know that you are available to help things continue as normal as possible. Defuse any situation for them that may make them uncomfortable. Allow them to gather among themselves and grieve in their own way, in their own time.
Recognize that this is a tragedy and that others will be notified in the proper manner. It is imperative that you remain sensitive, and do not use electronic media such as Facebook to contact or notify anyone without the family’s authorization.
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- Seek out a grief counselor and ask them for advice.
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Comforting a mourner is one of the most important Mitzvahs in the Torah. So important in fact, that King Solomon famously said:
“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living shall lay it to his heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7, 2)
However, comforting a grieving friend can sometimes feel awkward or even embarrassing.
…“What do I say?”
…“What do I do?”
…“What If I say something out of place?”
Those are all legitimate worries, all of which can be addressed by understanding the mourner’s frame of mind and being thoughtful to his grief.
Trust me, it’s worth understanding these basic “rules”, rather than avoiding confronting your grieving friend – which is the worst thing you can do.
Comforting a Grieving Friend feels Uncomfortable? Do it Anyway
According to Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka’s wonderful book, Turning Grief into Gratitude, the best way to comfort a mourner is by saying nothing.
While it may feel uncomfortable, you should realize that this isn’t about you, it’s about your friend.
Your friend isn’t thinking about what you’re saying, he’s thinking about his lost loved one.
He doesn’t expect you to be his psychologist, counselor or rabbi. So don’t feel the need to share words of wisdom, say something clever and be someone you’re not. Simply be there, be present, and hold his/her hand – whether literally or metaphorically. These gestures are worth a thousand words.
Pain is a vital part of mourning, and you shouldn’t try to ease his pain, as counter-intuitive as it may sound.
Your job Is to be there, and show them that they’re not alone. Your presence in itself is what’s comforting, not your words.
Every person deals with grief differently, so you should be careful not to say something that may backfire and cause him even more pain.
- Talking about the deceased might pour salt on his already-open wounds
- Trying to distract him with mundane conversations – may be interpreted as inconsiderate.
- Don’t try to make him laugh. He might think you’re being disrespectful of his grief.
The worst thing you could do is say things that are cliché and unhelpful to him. This can definitely make matters worse.
Note: If you’re a psychologist, a rabbi or can share helpful words of wisdom, then by all means do it, but be thoughtful about it.
So what’s the best solution? Silence.
Silence is Gold
According to Jewish tradition, it’s recommended that you stay silent and wait for your friend to initiate the conversation. Every person responds to his grief differently: they may want to share stories, they may want to distract themselves with some humor, they may cry, they may want to remain silent and reflect. Your job is to be graceful and adapt to his behavior, rather than “trying to help”, which may make him feel worse.
Your friend isn’t thinking about what you’re saying, he’s thinking about his lost one. If you don’t have anything meaningful and truly useful to say, don’t say anything…
Simply be there, be present, hold his/her hand. These gestures are worth a thousand words.
Believe me, your friend will appreciate you much more than if you said something annoying that he already knows.
What You Should Avoid
Remember, your mourning friend is probably in a sensitive state, so try and avoid using cliché sentences. They will make him feel worse.
Avoid saying things like:
- “He’s surely in a better place now” – how do you know that? This is uncertain, and the mourner doesn’t need more uncertainty right now.
- “God wanted him close to him” – again, how do you know that? Do you know what the deceased did or didn’t do throughout his life? How can you be sure of that? Not to mention that this might paint God in a selfish way, taking the ones he wants for himself.
- “How are you?” – for obvious reasons.
- “At least he had a long, meaningful life” – even if it’s true, that’s a stab to the heart of the mourner. The mourner wanted him to live longer, and obviously to him, the deceased left too soon. So be careful not to say these hurtful words.
- “I know how you feel” – Do you? And even if you do, this isn’t about you. He’s the one who’s hurting now, not you.
- “Life goes on” – while this is true, this isn’t the time or place to say it to the mourner. This is the time for honoring the deceased, mourning and feeling in pain. Don’t take that away.
Instead, Do This
Don’t just tell someone that you share his pain. Prove it. Gestures are much stronger than words, and the mourner will appreciate it much more than an overly used sentence he’s been hearing all week. Join the prayers, help take care of the attendees, do the dishes. Anything you can do to help him focus on mourning will be truly appreciated by him and will show him that you care.
Actively helping the mourner and his family is a very respectful thing to do.
This is contrary to common sayings such as “call me If you need anything”, which puts the mourner in a position of having to ask. Even though these sayings mean well, they are interpreted as selfish.
The mourner probably won’t call you.
He’s not thinking about you now, he’s most likely thinking of the deceased and is in pain. So you initiate, you make the phone call… because he obviously needs comforting.
If conversation strikes, feel free to share nice memories & stories about the deceased. You can compliment the mourner by describing the love & relationship he shared with the deceased.
But be careful. If you think you may say something that can hurt the mourner, it’s best not to say anything.
Another important thing to do is to check up on the mourner after he’s finished mourning.
Usually, the most lonely period of the mourner is after the Shiv’ah ends. The people who visited him during the Shiv’ah usually feel like they’ve done their part, and continue on with their lives. This is when the mourner may feel truly alone, so it’s vital that you show interest in him after the Shiv’ah ends:
- Call him the next morning
- Visit him after the Shiv’ah
- Join him for Shacharit
- Take him out for a drink
It will help the mourner cope with the pain and show them that they’re not alone.
No matter how uncomfortable it feels, remember that this is about the mourner, not about yourself.
Keep in mind that he’s probably feeling vulnerable, so be thoughtful about what you do and especially what you say. Right now, all he wants is to not feel alone and to respect the deceased. And trust me, he would much rather do it with his family & friends alongside him.