Losing a loved one is one of the hardest experiences to go through as a human. The beauty in loving another person is stripped from our hearts and replaced with a dark sense of loss.
Adding to the heaviness of grief, friends and colleagues can easily become awkward, avoiding the topic altogether or trying to make everything better as if nothing happened. This can leave those grieving feeling alone with their heightened emotions and thoughts.
I’ve seen and engaged with every kind of loss – from the loss of a parent, to a spouse, to a child. From expected loss to sudden loss. I’ve realized in talking to people who haven’t experienced a major loss yet, that there can be a gap in understanding and knowledge on how to engage with someone who’s grieving.
If you’d like to learn how to be a friend during a time of grief, you came to the right place. I’m sharing tips I’ve learned to support your friend, rather than feeling awkward and uncertain on how to help. Let’s dive in.What’s it like for someone experiencing loss and how can you help?
When trying to help and support a grieving friend, there are a few important things to know that might not be immediately obvious if you haven’t lost someone incredibly close. Even if you have, sometimes the immediate experience of loss and grief can feel far away.
Here are 6 incredibly helpful things to understand about your friend grieving, what to say, how to say it, what to think, why to think it, and ultimately, how to help them not move on, but actually grieve.
1. Grief is everlasting.
One common sentiment we always hear from grieving individuals is that there’s a permanent hole left in the absence of a loved one that has passed, and their life will never be the same. While on the surface, to someone that’s never experienced loss this may sound melodramatic, but it’s truly a reality for those grieving.
The pain of a significant loss will always be there. It will change a person, but they learn to co-exist with it.
How you can help: One of the best ways you can support a friend is simply understanding this reality and accept that your friend will always be reminded of their loved one in some shape or form. People don’t just “get over” the loss of their loved ones, they just learn to live with it.
2. Platitudes don’t help.
Platitudes are a remark or statement like “everything happens for a reason,” “they’re with God now,” or “at least you’re young and have time to find someone else.”
If you’ve talked to anyone who’s experienced a significant loss, the consensus across the board is that platitudes are the worst. Yuck!
People hate to see their friends suffer during a time of loss, so they try to “look on the bright side.” While it the intentions are good, these statements feel like daggers to the heart, because it reduces this enormous experience to a trite takeaway, and can be interpreted as “everyone else has moved on already.”
How you can help: Before offering a consolation like this, first ask yourself, “Am I trying to justify what happened?” or “Am I just trying to make them feel better?” If the answer is yes, then it’s best to leave it unsaid.
3. It sucks & it’s lonely.
Since a lot of people are uncomfortable around death, they tip-toe around someone who’s grieving and treat them differently. This makes the grieving person feel misunderstood, and gives them no outlet to express how they are truly feeling.
Grief can then take a very lonely turn. It’s important to keep in mind that the suckiness and loneliness won’t go away overnight either.
How you can help: To support a grieving friend, embrace the tears. Let them know it’s OK they’re not ok, and that you’ll hold the space for them to cry or to feel whatever they feel.
Instead of tip-toeing around someone who’s grieving, acknowledge the situation for what it is and how much it sucks. Take their hand and say, “This sucks so much. I’m here for you no matter what. We’ll get through this,” is the most comforting thing you can do, and a great replacement for condolences.
Just show them that you understand, and give them the gift of letting them know they don’t need to go through it alone.
Instead of asking “What happened?” take the time to ask about what their loved one was like. Some friends will be a little more private than others, but more often than not, you’ll see them light up at the chance to tell you about their loved one.
Don’t shy away from looking at pictures and videos together and spending time sharing memories about their loved one.
At Eterneva, we don’t ask how they died, we ask who they were as a person. We’ll say:
- “What was your loved one like?”
- “What were your favorite qualities about them?”
- “How would you describe them to a stranger?”
- “What’s a favorite memory about them?”
4. Grieving people aren’t project managers.
Imagine you’re hosting a dinner party and a guest asks, “What can I do to help?” While the guest obviously means well, it quickly becomes another chore in itself to think of things for them to do and then delegate instructions.
Now, imagine being asked that question after your entire world came crashing down around you. Grieving people are not in the headspace to be the best project manager and come up with something for you to do.
How you can help: Instead of asking someone “How can I help?” take a more proactive approach and find something you can do to help. Challenge yourself to find three things without even asking your friend.
- Does the house need to be cleaned?
- Could they use a home cooked meal?
- Does the dog need to be walked?
- Could they use a coffee delivery?
Little proactive acts of service are the things people remember most. If you don’t know what to say, then just find something to do without asking.
5. Holidays, weddings and birthdays are hard.
Since grief is something that doesn’t go away, the fourth, fifth, and sixth Thanksgivings can be as difficult as the first without them.
As we discussed in tip #1, grief doesn’t end, and across time, it will show up in waves. A year from now, hearing wedding vows or seeing kids playing in a park might trigger your friend.
Traditions that used to be shared with the loved one can feel empty and heavy without them.
How you can help: Mark your calendar for the holidays that will be hard on your friends. Then on those days, just shoot them a text that says: “I know today’s a tough day, so wanted you to know I’m thinking of you. Love you and sending you a big hug. Let me know if you want to talk.”
Here are some days to remember to check in with your friend:
- Their loved one’s birthday
- The day they passed
- Maybe Mother’s Day or Father’s Day if they lost their Mom or Dad.
6. Distance from living loved ones makes it harder.
If your friend is separated by distance and time zones from you and other friends and family, it can add to the feeling of loneliness.
Our lives don’t stop when a friend experiences a loss, but there are still things we can do to show support and help a grieving friend anyway – even if we live far away.
How you can help: Make a phone call, send a text message, show up, send small gifts, check in and keep a calendar of days and holidays you know will be hard for your friend.
Call out details from what you know about the lost loved one in a personal note, card or letter to your friend.
Get detailed and specific about memories you have of their loved one or family member –– and the impressions those memories have left on you. These details are likely ones they haven’t heard, or heard told in this way, and will allow the memory of their loved one to live on.
If you’re feeling stuck on what to write, consider asking yourself these questions:
- What was it about this person that you really loved?
- How did they make you feel?
- What were your favorite memories?
- How have those moments changed you?
While these memories and the retelling of them are hard, they are some of the most meaningful. To give them to the family or loved one suffering helps that family recognize the larger impact on the world their loved one had, and how exactly their memory will be kept alive through their connections.Remember, even though they’re grieving & things will be different, they’re still your friend and need you now more than ever.
The effort you’re putting in to this by looking up articles like this and trying to really be there for your friend is inspiring, kind, and brave.
Everyone’s grief journey is different. All you can do is be a beacon of light when the road gets dark to remind them they aren’t alone, and that their grief is validated.
To recap, remember to ditch the platitudes, listen to your friend, talk about the one that was lost, remember the details and share them, and do whatever you can to help your friend down the grief path.