What to say to a grieving friend

December 23, 2020
Painting of older lady comforting younger lady
end of life planning
anticipate life
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Bernadette Fulton

Grieving is part of life. As much as we would like to avoid it, we have to accept it. It is part of the price we pay for living on this planet. Many events and circumstances cause grief, probably the hardest being the loss of a loved one.

We will all find ourselves in the situation of trying to comfort a relative or friend, someone we care about, who is going through a grieving process at some stage of our lives. It is hard to know what to say at such times. Everyone experiences grief in such different ways and for different lengths of time. So how can we offer solace, love and support, in a thoughtful and respectful manner?

How to express your sympathy

Try to express your sympathy for the grieving person by offering condolences which acknowledge the heartache and pain the person is experiencing. It may be better to first write a letter, or send a card, rather than telephone immediately.

The newly bereaved is already overwhelmed with grief. And also with having to make a lot of difficult decisions in highly stressful circumstances.

“Maybe I can’t stop the downpour but I will always join you for a walk in the rain.” - Dr Sukhraj Dhillon

Our natural inclination is to try to ‘cheer up’ the grieving person, but they may not be ready to open up and talk about their loss. Let your friend or relative know how sorry you are, that you are thinking of them. Tell them that you are there to help in any way you can when they are ready.

When you write or talk to the grieving person try to reinforce the positive attributes of the lost loved one. Tell them what a kind or wonderful person, parent or friend the deceased was. You want them to know the ways in which their loved one was appreciated. The grieving person may also enjoy remembering a favourite memory you have of their loved one, of good times you shared, or humorous incidents.

What not to say

Don’t tell a grieving person that you “know how they feel”. A person in deep grief is alone in a grief which is unique to them. They may struggle with many intense emotions, including depression, anger, guilt, and profound sadness.

“No-one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” - CS Lewis

Try to avoid potentially hurtful cliches, however well intentioned, such as “be strong” or  “try to move on”, or any sentence starting with “You should...”. The grieving person does not need to be told how to feel or act. Comments which can seem insensitive will not help your friend at all. But don’t let the fear of intruding or feelings of discomfort stop you from reaching out to someone who is grieving. You don’t need to have answers or give advice or say and do all the right things. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there.

The importance of just listening

Often just listening to your friend will be more important and valuable that what you say to them. Saying nothing and just being with a person can provide great comfort.

We worry about the right things to say but forget that what our friend may really need at some point is someone to talk to, someone to listen. We have all experienced how helpful it is to talk with a trusted friend about difficult or painful situations we are dealing with. This is especially true if we are coping with an end of life situation.

Just having someone listen, sympathetically, to the unburdening of a heavy heart can provide great solace and comfort to a grieving person. Talk openly about the person who died and don’t change the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. Be genuine in your communication and when, and if, it is appropriate ask sensitive questions that encourage the bereaved to express their feelings.

Offer practical assistance

Grieving people often don’t like to ask for help. They may be feeling too depressed, or feeling guilty or fear of being an inconvenience to others. Offer your support with a specific task. So rather than giving a generic offer of help like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” make it easier for them to accept your help by making specific suggestions. You could say, “I’m going to the supermarket this afternoon. What can I get you from there?” or “I’ve made lasagne for dinner. What time can I come by with some?”

Some other ways you can offer practical support include:

  • Help with some of their house work, such as laundry or mowing the lawns.
  • Drive them wherever they need to go.
  • Look after their pets or children for a short while, if they have them.
  • Accompany them to a support group meeting.
  • Go for a walk in nature together.
  • Take them to lunch or a movie.

Grief doesn’t end with the funeral. Nor does it end when the flowers and cards stop coming. When everyone else has gone back to their day-to-day, the bereaved are still left - alone. Continue to show your support over the long term. Just because someone looks fine doesn’t always mean they are. Watch for signs of depression. You can express your concern by stating your feelings, “I am worried that you are not sleeping”. Encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if appropriate.

Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend or family member. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays such as Mother’s or Father’s Day, or Christmas, often rekindle feelings of grief. Be sensitive on these occasions and offer extra support on those special days.

It is your caring support during their time of grieving that will help them gradually begin to heal.

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering it will be happier - Alfred Tennyson