Advice for Helping Friends in Mourning

By Lisa M. Petsche

When someone you know experiences the death of a loved one, you want to reach out but may feel unsure of what to say or do.

Perhaps you haven’t lost someone close, and it’s difficult to appreciate what your friend is going through and anticipate his or her needs.

The following is some advice:

  • Don’t agonize over what to say. Keep it simple and heartfelt – for example, “I’m so sorry,” “My heart goes out to you,” “I’m here for you,” or perhaps even “I’m at a loss for words.” Avoid platitudes such as, “It’s for the best” or “You still have a lot to be thankful for.”
  • Let your friend do the talking and listen attentively and non-judgmentally. Resist the urge to give advice or recount your own experiences. Be prepared for repetition – this is part of working through grief.
  • Accept silence. Sometimes a bereaved person may not feel like talking but would nonetheless appreciate companionship. Remember, too, that body language – a touch of your hand or a hug – can also express support and caring, often better than words.
  • Keep in mind that grief affects people emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically, and that, although there may be similarities, no two people grieve alike.
  • Don’t underestimate the pain your friend is experiencing and don’t discourage tears or urge him or her to “be strong.” Don’t try to withhold your own tears, either; they are merely a sign that you care.
  • Share memories of your friend’s loved one – kind or funny things the person did or words of wisdom he or she shared with you.
  • Find a favorite photo of the deceased person, frame it and give it to your friend.
  • Encourage your friend to practice self-care, getting adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep and scheduling regular medical check-ups, as well as avoiding unnecessary stress.
  • Offer to help in practical ways, such as fielding phone calls, preparing meals, running errands or walking a dog. Make concrete offers (for example, “I’m going to the grocery store – what can I get you?”) or simply go ahead and do things such as delivering a casserole or clearing snow.
  • Many newly bereaved people experience a spiritual crisis, so don’t be alarmed if this happens with your friend. Listen patiently and empathetically to doubts and fears.
After the Funeral
  • Continue to stay in touch after the funeral is over. That’s when the reality of the loss, with all its implications, sets in, and grieving people need support more than ever.
  • Don’t act as if everything is okay. This makes it hard for friends to open up if they feel the need.
  • Don’t avoid the subject of the deceased person or mention of his or her name.
  • It’s comforting to the bereaved to know that others still remember their loved one as time goes by.
  • Be patient. Since grief saps energy, take the initiative in the relationship, calling and arranging visits.
  • Recognize that timelines for healing vary from one person to the next.
  • Don’t pressure friends into doing things they don’t feel ready for, such as sorting through and disposing of a loved one’s belongings.
  • Discourage friends from making major life changes for a while, unless they’re absolutely necessary.
  • Encourage friends to seek professional help if they’re unable to function in day-to-day life (suggestive of clinical depression), or if they appear to be stuck in one of the phases of grieving (for example, denial or anger).
  • Remember special occasions throughout the year that are likely to be difficult: birthdays, wedding anniversaries and holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as the anniversary of death. Call or send a card to let friends know you’re thinking about them.

Above all, keep in mind that bereaved people don’t expect friends to provide answers to difficult, often philosophical questions – such as “Why did this happen?” – or to take away their pain. What they do want and need is the comfort of knowing they are not alone.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer who has personal and professional experience with elder care.

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