You just found out that your dear friend's mother has passed away. You know she is devastated: they were very close. Before you pick up the phone to call her, consider your words carefully. Each person deals with death differently, and what you might think is a comforting statement, may, in fact, do more harm than good. Whether the death occurred an hour ago or ten years ago, it helps to approach the subject with gentleness and love.
On the year anniversary of my daughter Dawn's death from Cardiomyopathy with fibrosis, the Dalai Lama paid me a visit. He shared with me that though he was the Dalai Lama, and believed in reincarnation, that when his brother - his only childhood playmate - died, his personality still missed his brother. And so it is, for all of us left behind: we all miss our loved ones. So it is particularly important when trying to comfort those who grieve, that we recognize that all we can really do for one another is offer our love and support.
Here are some common reactions to death that you should avoid, and some helpful alternatives that you can use instead.
"I know exactly how you feel. When my mom died. . . "
Empathy is a wonderful skill. However, dealing with a loved one's death is a truly individual experience. Not only that, but when discussing someone's passing, that discussion should honor the deceased; when you immediately bring up your experience, you come across as self-indulgent by putting the focus on you. Even if you have experienced a similar death of a loved one, you can never know exactly what your friend is going through. Instead, consider offering empathy in a way that puts the focus on, and honors, the deceased, such as "You loved your mother so much. I can imagine this is extremely difficult for you."
"He/She is in a better place now. Everything happens for a reason."
Especially soon after death, this phrase gives little comfort to those left behind, who are grappling with overwhelming feelings of loss. Instead, acknowledge the death by paying your respects, and consider offering a positive memory of the deceased that honors him/her, such as "I am so sorry to hear about your great aunt's passing. You meant so much to her. Her smile lit up the room whenever you walked in."
"It's been a year since he/she died. It's time to move on and start dating again."
There is no deadline for grief. The overwhelming feelings of loss and despair may lesson, but the memories and the longing may remain, and may strike harder at different times of your life. Trust that your friend will know when the right time is to start dating again; your opinion of when that should be plays no part in his/her life. Instead, you might say, "I know it has been a difficult year for you. I want you to know that I support you and that I am here for you."
"Well, at least she died in her sleep/without pain/this way instead of that."
You may think you are helping your friend find comfort with such a statement, but especially soon after, there is no bright side of death for those loved ones left behind. They are no longer living, and that is the main, irreversible fact your grieving friend must work through, regardless of the circumstances. Instead, you might simply offer condolences and pay your respects: "I am so sorry for your loss."
Sometimes, the best thing you can say to a friend who is grieving is nothing at all. Simply offer a shoulder, a hug, and an ear to listen if they want to talk. During the grieving process, the thing that those left behind need the most is simply love, support - and a lot of it.