When an acquaintance has lost a loved one, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. Here’s some guidance on offering sympathy with grace.
Expert Source: Russell Friedman, cofounder and executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and coauthor of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.
Someone in your life has just lost a person who really matters to him or her — a parent, a child, a friend. Emotions are running high, as are confusion and uncertainty.
You want to help, but how? What can you say that will be remotely comforting? What actions can you offer that will actually make life easier? How do you avoid invading the griever’s privacy?
Condolence is an art that requires wisdom, tact, and courage. It means being honest about your own feelings, not trying to persuade your grieving friend to feel better, and being available to listen.
Grief expert Russell Friedman, cofounder of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., specializes in helping people deal with grieving issues. He offers some insight and advice for meaningful and heartfelt consolation.
Barriers to Overcome
- Sadness avoidance. “Growing up, we’re all taught not to be sad,” says Friedman. This taboo can make us confused about how to behave in the presence of real sorrow.
- Fear of intruding. We might hesitate to offer words or deeds of consolation, fearing that we will somehow be intruding on the griever’s privacy.
- Discomfort with loss. The difficulty of acknowledging another’s grief may reflect our own anxiety about facing loss. “If you haven’t grieved your own losses,” Friedman says, “you will be hesitant to deal with someone else’s.”
- The belief that all grief is the same. Saying “I know how you feel” always rings false, according to Friedman. “The truth is, you really don’t know how your friend is feeling because this isn’t your relationship or your loss — and the griever knows that.”
- The temptation to correct someone’s feelings. Statements like “Your father is in a better place” can seem kind, but they covertly “correct” the griever’s feelings. “The person who has died may or may not be in a better place,” says Friedman, “but I guarantee that the grieving person is not.”
- The vague question. Your interest is well-meaning, but the question “How do you feel?” makes many grievers cautious. “They’re likely to be hesitant to honestly tell you how they feel,” Friedman says, “because it leaves them open to having their feelings corrected or judged.”
- Putting the burden of help on the griever. Telling someone “I’m here for you. Just let me know if there’s anything I can do” puts an additional burden on the grieving person: the responsibility of identifying, requesting, and scheduling support.
Strategies for Compassion
- Acknowledge your feelings. Your uncertainty about what to say or do may comfort the griever if you admit it honestly. “The simple statement ‘I heard that your mom died, and I just don’t know what to say’ is both accurate and helpful,” Friedman says. “It assures the griever that you aren’t going to try to tell him or her how or what to feel.”
- Be helpful — and specific. Tell the griever what you would be happy to do, like bringing her dinner on Tuesday. Specific commitments, to which the grieving person can say yes or no, relieve her of the burden of asking for help or assigning tasks.
- Rightsize your offers of help. If you and the griever are not typically close, adapt your service accordingly. Volunteer to bring a meal or run a specific errand rather than proposing big blocks of daycare or daily visits. This will help everyone steer clear of awkwardness and avoid crowding the bereaved.
- Realize that grievers want to talk about the loss. “When someone undergoes a loss, they want to share their feelings,” says Friedman, “just as they want to share when something good happens to them.” Offering an opportunity to speak isn’t an invasion of privacy. It’s something the griever may be longing for.
- Ask open-ended questions. Friedman believes gentle, noninvasive questions are best when addressing someone’s loss. Begin with something like “I heard what happened, and I can’t imagine what this has been like for you. Do you feel like talking about it?” This shows respect for the uniqueness of the person’s emotions. “The inquiry makes it clear that you are not trying to dictate to the person how to feel,” Friedman explains. “It says, ‘I will listen to your truth without judgment.’”
- Help the griever talk about the departed. Whether the griever’s relationship to the deceased was good, bad, or indifferent, he or she is trying to sort it out after the loss. As you would in any conversation, respond to the hints the griever gives about the relationship: “It sounds like the two of you did a lot of things together. This can’t be an easy time for you.”
- Actively and empathetically listen, and show it. Because it’s difficult to talk about loss, the griever might assume you’d rather discuss something else. Show your willingness to hear him out by nodding, keeping eye contact, and maintaining an attentive posture. “This is often the most effective communication you can offer, from your side, with a grieving person,” Friedman says. Don’t be afraid to laugh or cry as it feels appropriate.