Loss has a way of effecting those who may be once, twice, or even three times removed form it. Imagine that your spouse or significant other looses a family member, or a friend, or even a roommate is experiencing grief after loss. It is never easy to approach this subject with someone that you care for, even if you have experienced loss yourself, as it is different for everyone. Here are just a few tips to help if you know someone who is grieving and you want to help, but aren't sure how to go about it.
1. Offer hope. People who have gone through or are currently grieving often remember that it is the person who offered reassuring hope, the certainty that things will get better in the future, who helped them make the gradual passage from pain to a renewed sense of life. Be careful, though, about being too optimistic and cheerful, as doing so may make the bereaved person feel even more isolated. Rather, tell them that they will grieve as long as they need to, but will come out of this difficult time with strength. This remark both acknowledges that there is no quick and easy solution and also affirms your confidence that things will improve. You can even use specific examples from that person's life to make them realize and remember that they have faced challenges and overcome them in the past, as oftentimes the will to overcome lives within us and is only buried until someone reminds us that it is there.
2. Don't ask "How are you?". Since this is the same greeting you would offer anyone, it doesn't acknowledge that your friend has suffered a devastating loss. Instead try, "How are you feeling today?". Grief is not a constant thing, and many of my clients and people that I have known who have experienced a loss feel differently from day to day or hour to hour, it is important to address the person's feelings in the moment, especially if they are positive.
3. Help out. Don't just ask if you can "do anything", as this transfers the burden to the bereaved, and he or she may be reluctant to make a request as many people have difficulty asking for help, especially when they are feeling that they need it most. Instead, be specific when offering help: bring dinner over, pass on information about funeral arrangements, or answer the phone for them, pitch in to clean up their home or space, take them somewhere away from home, to a park or store, to help them remember how important quality time can be. Sometimes your help is most valuable later. Never expect a thank you or gratitude right away either, grief can do more to affect a person's mood and mannerisms than just making them "sad".
4. Don’t compare their experience to yours, unless it really is a fitting comparison or you are asked for advice due to your common ground. It’s such a natural instinct, but chances are whoever is grieving would not like to focus on another unrelated tragedy that you might have gone through. Unless your story comes with a recommendation or lesson for how you were able to overcome your grief, comparing can often make a grieving person feel as though their situation matters less than yours.
5. Listen well instead of advising. A sympathetic ear is a wonderful thing and very underrated. Often, people work through grief and trauma by telling their story over and over, and this method can even be used in therapeutic settings. Unless you are asked for your advice, don't be quick to offer it. Frequently, those who are grieving really wish others would just listen. It's your understanding that is most sorely needed, not the offer of "fixing" their problem.
6. Avoid judgments. Your friend's life and emotions have changed enormously, possibly forever. You may wish he or she would move on, but you can't speed the process or even ensure that it happens. Let your friend heal at the pace that feels right and in his or her own manner. "You should cry" or "It's time to move on" are not helpful directions. If the person you are trying to help feels comfortable around you, they will share things that they may be embarrassed about, and making them feel judged may cause them to feel uncomfortable opening up to you. Having an open and honest heart is something that can be seen by others, especially during their dark moments, and this is good advice not only for those who are grieving, but for all interpersonal relationships.
Keeping these tips in mind when approaching a difficult conversation with a loved one can help to reduce stress and make both participants feel at ease. Remember that a simple touch on the hand, shoulder, or arm (when it is safe to do so) can also help a bereaved person remember that you are there for them physically as well as emotionally. Sometimes a friend's simple ear, or small helpful task can mean the world to someone going through a difficult time. Remember that we are all in this together, and your kind action may someday be reciprocated when you need it most.