Supporting others in grief – 10 do’s and don’ts
We are generally not good at dealing with grief. In our western culture we don’t like to talk about death or dying at all. If someone we know loses a loved one, we have no idea what to do, what not to do, or how to help.
We feel like helpless bystanders, wanting to help take the pain away yet knowing that we can’t.
We stammer out words, offering platitudes that mean nothing. Sometimes we feel like we are doing more harm than good, so we say and do nothing at all.
There is no sure-fire formula to support a friend or family member in grief, but in this week’s post I outline 10 do’s and don’ts to help you navigate this journey without mucking things up too much.
1. Don’t try to make things better.
Our instinct is to try to make things better, to try to take the pain away – but let’s face it – there is nothing you can say or do that will do that. In fact, saying things like “it will get better over time”, “you’ll get over it” or “you really must leave it behind you and move on” are just not helpful – those statements completely fail to acknowledge the unbearable pain of the one who is grieving.
If you really want to help, then – if the one who is grieving wants to share their pain then be prepared to acknowledge that pain and to listen to how much the grief hurts even it is hard for you to do. After all, it is not about you. This grief belongs only to the griever and you have no business trying to make the grief go away just because you don’t want to keep facing it.
2. Don’t stop talking about their loved one
One of the worst things you can do, is act as if the person who has died never existed, by avoiding ever mentioning them. Instead talk freely about their loved one, share memories you have when they cross your mind, ask questions about them – bring them back “into life”.
3. Don’t be afraid to trigger tears or other emotions but don’t make it your mission to do that
A lot of us don’t say things or we shut down conversations when we begin to see those discussions trigger emotions. Don’t do that. Letting tears flow, perhaps even silently sharing some, is likely to be helpful. Letting someone express their anger in a way that isn’t hurting themselves or others is, for some, a necessary part of grief.
On the flip side of this – don’t assume that just because someone is grieving that they want to spend endless hours talking about how they are coping (or not coping) over countless cups of tea or coffee – sharing their sadness with you. Sometimes there is a need to escape the sadness. So if your friend or family member prefers to catch up while doing something – going for a walk, heading to the movies or hitting the gym and they deliberately don’t want to talk about their grief – for goodness sake don’t keep asking them questions to try and make them cry. It is not your place to do that. This is their journey – not your mission.
4. Don’t take things personally
Supporting someone in grief is not about you. If you can’t take rejection, having your invitations knocked back, being asked to back off, ignored or perhaps even copping a spray from your friend or family member who is angry, hurt and upset – then you are not ready to take on the role of supporter. If you expect or require appreciation and thanks for everything that you do and if your feelings would be hurt if you didn’t receive that – then you need to rethink your motivation.
5. Don’t assume you are part of the “inner circle” but if you are then be prepared to be a “shield”
Sometimes the number of people who want to support someone in grief can be overwhelming. Unless you are very close family, or best friends, don’t assume that your support beyond your sympathies expressed in writing, in flowers or in the provision of a meal is needed particularly in the first few weeks when grieving can be an intensely private and personal time.
So let me spell this out.
If you feel like you need to introduce yourself to the family in grief at the funeral because they don’t know who you are – back away. It is not the time or place to be making those introductions AT the funeral. This day is not about you, or announcing your presence. Write your name in the guest book (supplied for the very purpose of letting the the family know you came), leave flowers or a card that says the words you want to say, pay your respects, catch up with others, and leave.
If you don’t know the griever well, then don’t assume it is ok to knock on their front door – bearing gifts or flowers and then expect to have your first ever conversation with them. Bring the gifts or flowers if you must – but leave it at the front door with a note and sneak away.
If you ARE very close, then offering to shield your friend as a designated point of contact to coordinate delivery of meals or to act as someone who can relay information to others wanting to help, can be a massive relief. Have the guts to shield your friend from well meaning strangers at the funeral even if that means you cop the flack. Make sure your loved one has a means of escape – literally – make sure you think about and pre-arrange an easy physical exit to take at any given moment at the funeral, at first outings and at any events that involve a crowd. Be the drop off point for food deliveries and be prepared to run interference for those nosey-parker questions that others will have.
6. Don’t ask – anticipate
Saying things like “let me know if there is anything I can do to help” is frankly not helpful. Your grieving friend or family member just will not have the energy or mental capacity to formulate a request for help. Instead make offers to help in tangible ways and then follow through. It might be to take the dog for a walk, mow the lawn, or take the bins out. It might be to make a meal or to deliver some basic weekly groceries like bread, milk, eggs and fruit. Don’t forget that this type of help might be needed for the longer term, not just for the first few weeks. You also need to be prepared to back off when asked to, without taking offence.
The following through bit – is critical. If your friend or family member asks you for ANYTHING or accepts your offer to do something – for goodness sake DO IT!!! If you are close enough to the person going through their living nightmare then surely the thing they are asking for is not too hard for you to fit into your life no matter how busy you are. If you let your friend down and you don’t follow through you risk losing your friendship forever. I know that sounds harsh but seriously – what might seem a legitimate excuse to you will cut deeper than you ever know.
7. Don’t overstep the line
While offering practical help to lift the burden of everyday life administration is usually appreciated, don’t assume that it is ok to just swoop in “to get everything back to normal”. If you go in to clean the house or help with the laundry you have to be super careful not to overstep. What might look like rubbish to you, might be the last beer a loved one enjoyed. An unfinished chess game might need to stay sitting untouched. Washing the sheets on the bed, that still smelled like a loved one could be utterly devastating. Never assume – always ask and never judge.
8. Don’t speak in clichés and platitudes and don’t compare
Some of the most unhelpful and truly hurtful comments are those that seem to roll off our tongues unthinkingly. As if some kind of pep talk we give from our clueless perspective will help someone who has suffered unimaginable loss move on. There is not much more than can be said here except that you need to be sure that none of these words, or similar, come out of your mouth:
- “He/she is in a better place”
- “I couldn’t handle what you are going through”
- “You’ll be able to have another baby”
- “You’re young enough to get married again”
- “You can’t blame yourself”
- “She wouldn’t want you to be upset”
- “oh well, at least he had a good innings”
- “you really must move on”
In fact any statements that contain “should” or “can’t” or “must” or “oh well” or anything that has a hint of trying to “fix” things or make someone better should be avoided at all costs. It is better to say nothing at all, than say these things.
Even if you have your own grief story don’t launch into it unless you are asked. You might think you have the answers, but the way you coped will not be the way your friend will cope.
9. Don’t ask questions to satisfy your own curiosity
You don’t need to know every little detail about how their loved one died. Their loved one is gone and that is all you need to know. We all have a level or morbid curiosity to want to find out how something so awful did happen – if only to console ourselves that this awfulness would not likely happen to us. This is not your business. If the griever wishes to share those details with you in order to process their pain – then be ready to listen and acknowledge their devastating experience. If the griever chooses to share their story to advocate for change so that others don’t experience pain like they have – then support them in that quest. But don’t you ask nosey questions just because you want to know the answers.
10. Show up, acknowledge and love
Think random acts of kindness. Think of the ways in which you can pamper and show love. Leave thoughtful gifts at the door – a voucher for a massage, a care pack of needed groceries, a bunch of flowers, a thoughtful card, an invitation. Send a text or a message when your heart breaks for them, so that they know they remain in your thoughts.
The best things you can do are those things that assure the griever that you are willing to walk alongside them no matter how long it takes. That you will acknowledge and not try to fix their pain, that you will walk alongside them, that you will remember their loved one, you will listen and you will love them unconditionally as they try to find a way to build life around the massive hole left behind. If you do those things, you can’t go wrong.
Walking with a friend in the dark, is better than walking alone in the light. – Helen Keller
If you have any tips to add – please share those in the comments!
2 comments on “Supporting others in grief – 10 do’s and don’ts”
A brilliant post yet again Zinta. A couple of other tips I have are –
Do not launch into your own grief story unless you sense that told gently, sensitively, it will offer something worth hearing. You may have to wait months or years for it to be useful to your friend. Remember, this is about your friend’s needs and story, not yours.
Do not get sucked into some weird high schoolish competition about who’s staying at your friend’s house, who they’re calling back, who they’re letting take the children out etc. Different friends offer different strengths. Let your friend decide which ones to take from you and don’t let your own insecurities get in the way.
If a friend starts remembering something about their loved one and speaks it, then shuts down immediately from overwhelming pain, NEVER push or tell them “It’s important that you talk about him and remember him.” Their brain can only process this sensory overload in its own time and pace. Do not make them feel guilty that somehow they are doing it wrong.
Reflecting on my own grieving experience, one thing which blessed me enormously was in that first year a few months after the initial difficult tsunami wave phase, were gifts being left at our door at random times by beautiful thoughtful friends – baking, pampering goodies, invitations, vouchers etc. It might sound odd but it was a ‘highlight’ of my own grieving process. Leaving these gifts at the door took away the pressure or need for me to respond then & there. The timing of this expression of kindness and love was also key.
Oh my word yes Diana! Thank you for sharing your further wisdom. I plan to expand this post – I have had really valuable feedback so I do feel there is so much more that could be said and so many more practical examples of what to do and not to do!
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