What do you say to a friend whose loved one has died? How can you help? What can you do to keep from making it worse?
Kristi Jamison of Empowerment Initiatives has come face-to-face with grief – and just about every other form of emotional crisis – many times in the course of her work. But no matter the situation, the first words out of Kristi’s mouth are always the same: “Have you eaten?” If not, she makes them a sandwich.
It’s amazing what a bit of nourishment can do.
Start With the Basics
It’s very common for people in grief to forget to eat, or not have energy to get dressed in the morning. Men may stop shaving. Both genders are apt to let the laundry pile up. So your first questions for a person in grief should be about the basics.
- “Are you eating?” Many will admit that no, they’re not. Make them a sandwich. Wash their dishes. Take them out to shop for groceries. And don’t do this just once – more on that below.
- “Can you sleep?” If a person slept in the same bed with his or her spouse for 60 years, it could be unbearable to lie there alone. What about a few nights on the recliner? Lend them an audio book. Perhaps consider an over-the-counter sleep aid (Zzzquil, Sominex). There are many ways to tackle this tough – but solvable – problem. Brainstorm together.
- “Are you managing to take a shower most days?” If the answer is no, or iffy, say, “How about I take Fido for a walk while you hop in the shower.” If they don’t have a Fido, choose a suitable substitute, or hang out on the couch and read.
- Add your own basics. Looking at the person, being in their home – these things will tell you other areas where the person needs help, but might be too proud to ask for it. Sidestep the “do you need help?” issue by not asking. Just help. Laundry basket overflowing? Don’t wait for “yes.” Haul it downstairs yourself and start loading the washer. Cat box getting rank? Don’t remark on it, grab the rubber gloves – and clean it.
Keep checking in with them, every few days – more or less often, as you sense is required. Have they eaten? How did they sleep? Have they been out of the house today? Their answers will give you a clear idea of how they’re doing and which tasks you can help with. Don’t wait for them to ask, get busy helping out.
Whew! It’s Not Just Me!
After you check on the basics, what then?
First, let’s put a big source of anxiety to rest. It’s not just you – nobody knows what to say. You’re not alone in your discomfort, not by a long shot. But the worst thing that can happen to a bereaved person is to be abandoned by friends, who drop away, one by one, after the funeral. So don’t wait for the words to come. Go to the person. Be with them.
Still wondering what to say? Here are some tips, adapted from the website of the American Cancer Society.
- Acknowledge the death; don’t pretend it didn’t happen. For example, say, “I heard that _____ died.” Yes, use the word “died.” That will show that you are open to talk about how the grieving person really feels.
- Express your concern. “I’m so sorry this happened.” “How sad!” “How are YOU?”
- Don’t hide your feelings. “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
- Ask how he or she feels, and don’t assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day.
That last one bears repeating. Don’t assume, or say, “I know how you feel.” That’s not something any person can know. Even if you’ve experienced a similar loss – you lost your mother, and now your friend has lost hers – it won’t be the same. Every loss is different, because every relationship is different, and every individual, interaction, history – and so is each one of the uncountable variables that make up a life. So don’t compare, but do empathize. You could say something like, “I can’t even imagine what you must be going through, and I want to be here for you in any way I can.”
It’s also important not to put artificial limits on another person’s grief. There is no set time or endpoint where a person “should” magically stop grieving. To suggest there is one (“Haven’t you gotten over that yet?” “It’s been months! Join the living!”) can come off hurtful or judgmental. Remind yourself that it takes as long as it takes.
One exception: If the person is still having significant problems – the kind that seriously impact his or her daily living – after six months, the National Institutes of Health caution it could be what psychiatrists call “complicated grief.”
“Prolonged grief, or complicated grief, is seen in a small portion of bereaved individuals—about 10% or 20%. Their symptoms are disruptive to their lives and daily functioning,” Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NIH’s News in Health. “These people may experience extreme yearning, loneliness and a feeling that life will never have any meaning. They may have intrusive thoughts and feel ongoing anger or bitterness over the death.” If that describes your friend, consider getting some help.
However, as HelpGuide.org notes, extremes can be quite normal: “A grieving person may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at loved ones, or cry for hours on end.” You can reassure your friend that strong emotions and careening moods don’t mean they’re going crazy, they are actually a common part of the normal grieving process.
Be There, and Be Back
Remember, above all, it’s your presence – not flowers, not casseroles, not donations – that is more important than anything else, far more important than knowing the “right” words. That’s even more true during the holidays – like now. Invite your friend to participate in every activity they usually enjoy – trimming the tree, visiting Santa, baking cookies. Make sure they always have an alternative to being alone.
Sit with your grieving friend. If you’re miles away, be with them on the phone. Listen. Share stories about the person who died. Look at photos. Maybe have a laugh. And when you go home (or hang up), set a date – soon – to visit again.
♦ ♦ ♦
Further Information and Resources
Supporting a Grieving Person (HelpGuide.org)
Coping With Grief (WebMD)
Coping With Grief and Loss: Understanding the Grieving Process (HelpGuide.org)
Dealing With Grief During the Holiday Season (AARP)
♥ This article is dedicated to the memory of Jen Gouvea, a beloved part of the Portland mental health community who died November 8. Jen was a professional counselor who incorporated breathwork, flower essences and astrology into her practice. But more than that, she was a gentle spirit with a true and honest heart, who loved deeply, touched many, and left too soon. Bye, Jen. ♥