There are few situations more awkward than trying to comfort a friend who has lost a loved one. What can you say? More importantly, what do they WANT you to say? I hear it all the time: ‘I don’t know what to do for him! It’s such an awful thing—I can’t imagine!’
While speaking with people who have lost a child, a parent, a spouse or someone else of great value to them, I have learned what they want—and don’t want—to hear in these situations. And what they said might come as a surprise.
Most often, people who have experienced a tragic loss simply want you to ‘be there.’ They need you to remain present in their lives—not hovering 24/7, but available if they need you. They don’t want you to try and cheer them up. One of the worst things you can do is to (inadvertently) make light of their sorrow by saying things like, ‘You’ll get through this,’ or, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ These statements are, of course, almost always true, but just because something is true doesn’t make it the right thing to say. One of the most idiotic things I have ever seen was a ‘sympathy’ card in a store that read, in flowery script, ‘He is only sleeping.’ Imagine receiving THAT when you’re trying to endure the anguish of a shattering loss!
You can’t ‘make’ someone feel better. They will almost certainly get better on their own, and in their own time. Human beings are, for the most part, a resilient lot. A grieving friend cannot, in a certain sense, be consoled. He or she just needs you to be the same person you always were—a soothing reminder that they still have something valuable in life, even if one of their most important relationships is now gone. The best you can do is to provide a bit of stability and familiarity in their time of sorrow and upheaval.
It’s hard to just stand by and watch a friend or loved one suffer. But, in a desperate attempt to ‘do something,’ you can often do more harm than good. Don’t preach to them. Minimizing their sorrow might make YOU feel better, but they will respond by thinking: ‘How can he (or she) understand what I’m going through right now?” Any attempt to ‘make things right’ applies a subtle pressure that they have to ‘get over this’ quickly. But why? In grief counseling, I regularly tell people, ‘You’re never going to get over this, and that’s OK. You’re not always going to feel like you do right now, but whenever you think about the loss, you’ll feel sad. Again: that’s OK. Forever allowing a part of yourself to grieve is a way to stay loyal to your lost loved one. And, over time, you’ll begin to see that it’s equally loyal to go on with your own life as well.’
My counseling clients appreciate hearing this, because rarely is anybody else in their lives saying it to them. Most people either preach to them or back away—the two worst things you can do in your grieving friend’s time of need.
Funerals, viewings, wakes and other social rituals are fine and certainly a necessary part of the grieving process. However, because they occur so soon after the death—before the shock wears off and the real grieving sets in—they don’t provide everything that’s needed. This is not the time to escape the sadness and get back to normal. They need you more after the funeral or other ceremony than they ever did in the initial two or three days after the death occurred. If you want to be there for them, that’s the time. Forget about, ‘What can I say to help them feel better?’ It isn’t your job, and it isn’t possible anyway. Just be present, without unintentionally pressuring them to get over it. Your gentle silence can effectively communicate everything you feel.
What I’m saying applies most dramatically to the death of a loved one, but it applies to other kinds of hurt as well. The demise of a close family member is undoubtedly the worst kind of loss for most people, but other kinds of loss can be almost as devastating. People lose their jobs, they lose beloved pets, they lose their homes to fire or natural disasters, and they lose friends. Although most of these situations may not always be as drastic or obvious as the events following a death, the same general themes apply.
You don’t have to offer clich and empty platitudes to pressure them to get through it. They feel what they feel, and that’s fine. Your job is simply to be yourself—the trusted friend or family member that you always were. In doing so, you help them appreciate the fact that, despite their nearly insurmountable loss, life still has good things to offer.