Unfortunately, it’s likely to happen to each of us when we least expect it: we hear the news that a friend or family member has lost a loved one through an unexpected or expected death. We may have an immediate feeling of doubt about how we should respond. What do we say? What do we do? What if we say or do the wrong thing?
These are important questions because what we say or do can either relieve emotional pain or make it worse.
Yet, by understanding a few important things about grieving and mourning we can be confident that we can help and not hurt.
Understand the Many Faces of Emotional Shock
Even when a death is expected—like after a long, serious illness—your friend is probably experiencing a roller coaster of strong emotions. According to the American Cancer Society, the shock of losing a loved one can manifest itself anywhere from disbelief, anger, uncertainty, denial or numbness. In my own experience, I’ve seen people whose numbness is misinterpreted as peace or acceptance, leading others to say, “She’s so strong” or “He’s taking this so well”—yet when the funeral is over and everyone has gone home, they fall apart.
Remember that your friend is likely to feel many emotional ups and downs—and a period of “strength” might be followed by real anguish.
Communicate Your Sorrow Simply
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “I wish I knew what to say…please know that I care,” are simple and comforting ways to let your friend know that you care. When we stray into clichés—like “She’s in a better place now,” or “It was his time to go,”—the person who is grieving may feel wounded because they simply want their loved one at their side. This can be especially true of parents who have lost children.
If you’re completely unsure of what to say, being nearby—yet silent—also communicates that you care.
Show Your Support through Service
You can decrease your own feelings of helplessness or powerlessness by serving your grieving friend. However, during the strongest moments of grief your friend may not be able to tell you what he or she needs. If that’s the case, you might consider doing anything that may be helpful—like mowing their lawn, doing their dishes, or helping them with the funeral. But remember that your service shouldn’t end with the funeral.
Thoughtful service will continue to show your concern.
Listening May Be the Most Helpful Thing You Can Do
Your friend may need to talk often. He or she may have to discuss the details of their loved one’s death—and may need to talk about it repeatedly. This can be part of the grieving process and you can help by being a patient, non-judgmental, listening ear.
But take your cues from your friend because talking about their loved one might be painful. One friend recently told me, “One of the most difficult things for us was when someone would…casually [mention our child’s name]. To us, mentioning his name was a reverent thing that we didn’t do very often except among each other. Even then, we were careful about it. It felt very jarring when others were too casual about it.”
Don’t Rush the Grieving Process
Experts in the field of emotional health and grieving concur that the process—and timeframe—of grieving is different for everyone. As a friend, you need to be ready for the long haul. It may literally take years for a grieving person to feel stable with their emotions. Encouraging them to “get outside” and take part in social activities may be helpful, but shouldn’t be forced. Give your friend time to adjust to their feelings and emotions and don’t be surprised if their grieving lasts much longer than you expect.
Don’t be Offended if Your Friend Shows Anger
Anger can be a normal emotion during the grieving process. Grief can heighten negative emotions and a normally kind person who is grieving may strike out at others emotionally. Understand that it’s a product of their grief and don’t take it personally. You can support them best by maintaining a level head and forgiving them when they’re not at their best.
Grief and Mourning Shouldn’t be Interpreted as a Lack of Religious Faith
About half the people in the world believe in an afterlife—and that belief is typically tied to religious views. While those who are grieving may find comfort in their belief that their loved one lives on in some other realm, that belief may not override the pain of separation. Often, grieving is about being separated from our loved ones—regardless of our beliefs.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment in the comments box. I also invite you to subscribe to this blog—which will cover a variety of healthcare topics.
A short post can’t cover everything, so if you’d like more information on this topic I encourage you to research the Five Stages of Grief by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Also, see the U.S. Government’s excellent “A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief.” If you’re concerned that your friend’s grief has developed into thoughts of hurting themselves or others, please contact a mental health professional.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Bailey Rae Bullock, Matthew Bullock, Dan Bishop, Joe Adams, Michelle Pereira, and the many others whose passing profoundly affected me.