A Simple Way to Help a Grieving Friend

There are much better ways to communicate with grieving family and friends than asking “How are you?”

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You heard through a mutual acquaintance that a friend’s husband died last week. Although you want to reach out and be supportive, you hesitate to pick up the phone. Will you be able to say the right things and give your friend the kind of emotional support she genuinely wants and needs?

Whether calling friends or family members who have recently lost a loved one, most people say their first words are: “Hi, how are you?” That’s not surprising, since it has become the standard greeting in the United States. However, the grieving people I work with in support groups tell me they hate that question, for three reasons:

  1. They are acutely aware that most people don’t really want to know the answer, especially when the answer is not good news.
  2. Their grief is so complex and unpredictable that it’s impossible to answer in a way that captures the scope of it.
  3. What they really want to say is, “How do you think I am? My husband just died!” Yet they don’t, because they don’t want to offend a person who wants to help but doesn’t know how. So they rely on a standard response such as “Fine” or “OK”. It’s not the truth, but it gets them by for the moment.

For all these reasons, if you want to truly support friends and family who are dealing with grief, it is not a good question to ask. Instead, ask other questions that invite your friend to talk about her experience honestly, and be willing to listen to the answer.

Sometimes we are reticent to ask a question, fearing that we are intruding into someone else’s personal life. Remember, though, that naming the reality is refreshing because so many others avoid the topic like the plague. Also, many grieving people are aching to talk because so few would-be comforters are genuinely willing to listen. You can’t go wrong by asking a good question, as long as you then follow your friend’s lead. People will let you know if they don’t want to talk, so then you move on to other things. In the majority of cases, though, you will likely find that they jump right in and begin to tell their story. It is healing for them to hear the words coming out of their own mouths, helps them make sense of it, and creates a bond of trust between you.

Start by asking open-ended question such as:

  • So what kind of a day is it today? Up, down, or all over the place?
  • Tell me something good that happened today and something that wasn’t so good.
  • It can take a long time to fully comprehend what happened, so in what ways has the reality sunk in now, and in what ways or at what times does it still just seem unreal?
  • What do you wish people knew about what your life is like now?

Asking these kinds of open-ended questions lets your friend know you “get her” and unlike so many others, you care enough to listen to the truth. It’s a very simple way to be truly helpful and supportive to someone you care about, especially as she goes through one of the toughest times of her life.

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