How to Support a Grieving Friend
"Your grief path is yours alone, and no one else can walk it, and no one else can understand it."
- Terri Irwin
Do you have a friend or family member who has recently experienced a major loss? Tackling grief can feel very difficult and uncomfortable, and you might wonder what to say or how to act. Do you hover over them and offer constant support? Or do you give them their space and allow them the time to process? The experience of grief looks and feels different for everyone. The following are five ways to offer support for people who have suffered an enormous loss:
1.) Check in with your own feelings first. Are you feeling anxious, easily shocked or startled, or consumed by your own thoughts? Are you extremely stressed or depressed? Basically, are you in a good head space right now to provide positive support? Sometimes when others disclose that they are experiencing major grief or loss, it can vicariously traumatize anyone listening. You might feel lightheaded, dizzy, or your heart might be racing, or you could be triggered by a significant loss from your own past. Before speaking with someone about their grief, consider taking a calming walk or taking a few deep breaths to center yourself. Don't forget to practice your own self care after any intense conversations.
2.) Focus on the other person. Give them your full attention, practice active listening, and don't interrupt. Don't rush through the sadness. Allow them to cry, and sit in their sadness with them. Tell them, "I'm here with you" rather than "I'm here for you." There is no right thing to say, however there are some definite no-no's. NEVER SAY: "Everything happens for a reason." There might not be a reason their loved one has passed - many awful things happen in life with no explanation or justification. Death should not be justified - plain and simple, it just sucks. And it hurts. Don't say, "I know just how you feel," because you don't, even if you've experienced loss, too. These feelings belong to them, not you.
3.) It's okay to not know what to say. This is normal, and your friend doesn't expect you to "fix" them - they just need the time, resources, and connections to heal. Sometimes two listening ears and a warm smile or hug are the best things you can give an individual who is grieving. Try saying: "I'm so sorry you're going through this. I wish I could think of the perfect thing to say, but I know there's nothing that can fix this or make it less painful. I just want you to know I care, I love you, and I am here with you."
4.) Acknowledge their pain. Listen, listen, listen. We cannot reiterate this enough. They don't need your advice. They don't want to hear, "it will get easier with time." Because realistically, it might not. Grieving is a process that looks different for everyone, manifests differently, and lasts for differing time periods. It could very likely last a lifetime. Don't tell them how to feel, or what they should do to feel better. Some individuals might feel angry, some might feel numb. There are different processes and stages to grief, and it's your job only to meet them where they are at right now in their own unique grieving process. "Your job is not to correct them, but to give them space to be the way they need to be."
5.) Take it day-by-day. One step at a time. Instead of asking the vague, blanket question of "How are you?", change this to: "How are you today?", reminding them that the best they can do right now is make it through one day at at time. Offer to do practical, specific tasks for the person, such as buying groceries, running errands with them, or cooking their family dinner. Offer not only your support, but also simply your company. Be there for them, even if it means sitting in silence watching television together. Sometimes the feeling of social connection can be enough to remind us that life is still going on around us, we have love and support, and we can make it through this with a few trusted friends and allies.
Do you need additional support around grief? Visit a local grief support group, call a few friends to schedule a fun outing, or come in and see us today. You deserve to take care of yourself through this difficult process too, and be mindful of the risk of vicarious traumatization. YOUR MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS, TOO. Practice your self care, and don't forget to not only love your friend through this, but also love yourself.
Remember, you don't have to be perfect, just present.
This too shall pass.