Witnessing a loved one’s suffering often feels intolerable. That’s why it’s common to want to rush in and help when someone close to you is grieving.
But many of us aren’t sure exactly what that entails. What do you say? What don’t you say? Do you just say nothing at all?
Unless you’re directly in a grieving person’s shoes it can be difficult to know how it feels and possibly how to handle it. Everyone experiences grief differently. Luckily, there are ways you can support someone who might be suffering.
We chatted with a few grief experts on the best ways to comfort and help a friend who has lost someone or something dear to them. Below are some important tips to keep in mind.
1. Remember there is no right way to grieve.
“The first thing to know is that everyone grieves differently,” Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and chair of the American Psychotherapy Association told The Huffington Post.
“Some people grieve very hard, very quickly and then move on,” he continued. “Some people grieve privately. Some people grieve intermittently. Some people want to sleep a lot, some people want to talk.”
Be open-minded about their process and know that grief is a response to any sort of loss, according to Reidenberg. Someone can grieve over the death of a partner or pet, the loss of a job or even a move from a cherished home to someplace new.
Culture tells us we have a certain amount of days off of work before we’re expected to get back on our feet. Some religions even outline a number of days and months to grieve. But experts agree that you can’t fit grief into specific parameters.
“There is no set time frame, so do not pressure people,” Reidenberg said.
2. Try to avoid cliché statements.
This includes: “Time heals all wounds,” “You’ll bounce back,” “They’re in a better place,” and “I know how you feel,” Michelle Carlstrom, a certified grief recovery specialist and senior director of Work, Life and Engagement at Johns Hopkins University told The Huffington Post.
“[Clichés] are often filler statements because we don’t know what to say,” Carlstrom said. “But clichés like this actually undermine the present moment, can belittle the experience and urge the griever to move through grief and ‘get back to happy.’”
Carlstrom suggests to ask open-ended questions when it is appropriate. Try these questions instead:
- “How did today go for you?”
- “How did your week go?”
- “How are you feeling?”
When you don’t know what to do or say in the moment, you can always say, “I’m so sorry” or “I can’t imagine how you feel,” which Carlstrom says is usually helpful. You can also offer a hug.
“Tears come and that’s okay ― don’t try to stop the tears,” she explained. “They have a purpose.”
3. Hand over control.
“The biggest issue with grief and when you lose something is you feel like life is out of control,” Reidenberg said.
Often times it may feel helpful to reach out and suggest making plans, like going out to a restaurant or a movie. You may feel like the grieving person can’t do it, so it’s up to you to make all the decisions instead. But this is a bad pattern, Reidenberg explains.
“It’s not helpful to the grieving person because it’s someone else literally controlling everything,” he said.
Rather than calling all the shots, ask your friend what would work best for them: Lunch or dinner? A movie or a walk? Rework your schedule around them and you empower the person who is grieving to shape the plan, Reidenberg says. Life feels like it’s been turned upside down, but this small act gives your friend some authority.
4. Find the closest puppy or kitten.
There is a strong body of research which supports the role of animal companions to assist in bereavement.
“Dogs have an amazing sense around sadness,” Reidenberg said. But those who are grieving do not need to go as far as formal pet therapy or even adopting their own dog. Even some quality time with a friend’s cat or a trip to the dog park might work.
“Anytime you can bring a puppy around or a dog around, people really do brighten up,” Reidenberg explained.
5. Be aware of gender differences.
Men and women expressing their emotions differently is nothing new, but a helpful reminder about what you could expect. Males and females tend to grieve differently.
Females might be willing to open up more than men, while men tend to isolate themselves more, use more alcohol and even express their grief in the form of irritability, according to Reidenberg.
6. Be a concerned and watchful friend.
Watch for signs of “complicated grief,” a process in which the grieving person could become depressed or suicidal, Reidenberg advised.
If your friend is not participating in the regular events of daily life, quits or loses their job or pushes away other relationships, this may be an indicator that something more serious is occurring. If you notice this happening, talk to your friend and suggest putting him or her in touch with a grief counselor for additional support and treatment.
7. Above all else, be present.
Ultimately, it helps to just show up.
“Grievers feel incredibly isolated and are not likely to reach out to say so, but grievers need and want you to listen,” Carlstrom said. “The best thing you can do is to be an engaged, nonjudgmental listener. They need to talk and share their memories out loud.”
And if other friends ask about how your grieving friend is doing, be honest. If they’re really struggling, people should know so they can help, too.
“The most important thing is that people know the truth,” Reidenberg says. “If we minimize how hard the grief has hit the person, we aren’t doing them any favors by glossing it over to others. We want their network of support people to know what’s really going on.”