It can be very hard to know how to support someone who is grieving (or indeed know how to ask for that support from others), particularly if you have never experienced grief yourself. To make matters more complicated, there is no right or wrong answer, because every person grieves differently; some people like to talk about their loved one whereas others prefer not to. For this reason, it is so important to follow the grieving person’s lead.
There are of course many things we could suggest of what not to do or say: never start a sentence with ‘at least…’, don’t try to look for the positives or offer platitudes, don’t compare your own experiences, no matter how much you believe you can resonate, etc. etc. – but this list would be long and likely to leave you in a situation where you feel terrified of every word you say.
So instead, here are some ideas on how to approach someone you know is grieving, because it isn’t just the words you use or actions that you take – it is the willingness you have to sit with, and lean into, the pain that is in front of you. There is no script, it is about learning how to be with someone who is vulnerable.
Make contact and keep making contact (unless you are told otherwise)
Send messages, cards, make phone calls, visit when the person is ready. There is nothing lonelier and more shaming than silence, so knowing that someone is thinking of you and that they exist in your mind is essential. You may caveat your messages with ‘do not feel that you have to reply, I just wanted to send you a message to say…’, which takes the pressure away from the recipient.
Accept that you feel unsure
‘I don’t know what to say’ is so much more helpful than clumsily trying to find the right profound and meaningful words. In all honestly, there aren’t the right words because words cannot change what has happened. ‘I love you’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘I’m here with you’ are often enough.
Sit with the pain
This is really hard because emotional distress is palpable. But if you are able to sit with that person and your own anxiety without trying to ‘fix’ it, you allow them the space to be vulnerable. They will not feel the pressure to seem okay because your avoidance of their pain is so apparent. ‘I’m here for you and I am going to try and be strong for you as much as I can’.
Ask and listen
‘What were they like?’, ‘Do you have any favourite photos?’, ‘Tell me about them?’ Ask the questions and allow them to talk whilst you really listen. You may cry, you may also even smile or laugh.
Make suggestions about what you want to do to help
‘Let me know if you need anything’ is an additional burden for a bereaved person to bear. This statement hands over responsibility to them: they somehow need to decide what they want, when they want it and then communicate it to you (which more often than not, just won’t happen). Keep thinking, keep suggesting and keep approaching. ‘I was thinking that I might pop over with a meal tonight, is that okay with you?’ ‘I bought you this gift as it made me think of you, but if it isn’t right or you don’t like it, please tell me and I can exchange it’.
Tolerate rejection and criticism
Accept that sometimes, you won’t get it right and it is important that you are able to hear and manage this. If you give your friend / relative the option to say no or to say that something wasn’t helpful, you need to be able to cope if they do this. Yes, it may hurt, particularly because you will have been offering with the best intentions. But the bereaved person has so much going on that tiptoeing around others or making them feel better is another burden too many.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they have the right to be intentionally rude. However, with grief can come anger and there is a possibility that you will at some point be at the receiving end of this. One day, hope that you will be able to talk this through with them, but for now, know that this is a painful (and sometimes shameful) part of loss and grief.
Look outwards for your own support
There’s a fantastic model called the ‘ring theory’ by Susan Silk that says that you should always look to the circle outside of yourself for support (dump out) and comfort inwards towards the person who is suffering (comfort in). It’s okay to cry with them, just don’t allow your feelings to engulf their own. Becoming the helper when you are the one most in need becomes an additional weight to carry.