When someone we love experiences a major loss, almost everyone wants to reach out and help in any way possible. When it’s a friend who’s experienced a major loss, we’re at an advantage over when it’s a member of the family, because usually the loss hasn’t touched us in nearly the same way.
But helping a friend through grief isn’t as easy as it sounds. Done right, it can bring true comfort to your friend and strengthen your friendship—done wrong, it can actually make your friend’s pain worse. Here are a couple of tips for providing real support to a grieving friend.
Show You Know Him/Her—and When in Doubt, Ask
We’re all different. We have different comfort foods, different schedules, different needs for social interaction. Just because you would want to binge on Oreos during a hard time doesn’t mean that’s what your friend would do. Some people who lose a spouse don’t want to sleep alone, or don’t want to spend the night at home at all—and they would appreciate an offer to spend the night at your house. Others just want to be alone.
Offer your support and ask what would be most appreciated. It’s best to be very specific—don’t ask “what can I do for you?” but rather “I’m going to the grocery store, what would you like me to pick up for you?”
Talk About the Deceased—If your Friend wants to
Offer to talk about what happened and about the person who died, whether or not you knew him or her well. Most grievers find comfort in talking about the person and don’t like it when people in their lives can’t acknowledge the death that happened. Don’t be surprised if your friend tells jokes or shares funny memories—even in the immediate aftermath of a major loss it’s normal to find humor in everyday life and/or the present circumstances, like a bizarre marketing ploy by a funeral home.
Be There for the Long Haul
A major loss can feel like a social life extinction event. It’s common for widows to lose friends after the death of their spouse. Grief lasts much longer than most people realize, and continuing to reach out even months after the death is one of the best ways to help your friend.
There are also a number of common mistakes people make in supporting a grieving friend. Make sure you don’t do any of the following:
- Mention religion. Even the most religious people often don’t appreciate comments like “this is God’s plan.”
- Try to “fix” the grieve. A recent widow does not want to hear about how s/he is young and can get married again.
- Say “I know how you feel.” First of all, losing your grandma is not the same as losing your sister. Even if you have experienced the same loss, you don’t in fact know how your friend is feeling.
Most importantly, don’t disappear. Many people experiencing major grief lose friends, and that is ultimately more painful than even the most thoughtless comment or awkward offer for help. Being around a friend in pain can be hard—it forces us to confront our own mortality and to realize that we too could suffer a major loss. But the bereaved need their social support system more than ever, and true friends will always be there.