Grief, while uncomfortable, is an inevitable part of life. Everyone experiences some kind of grief throughout their life, in the form of the loss of a loved one through death or a changed relationship, the loss of a job, a childhood home, independence due to illness or old age, or even missed opportunities. For those going through such painful grief, having the support of family, friends and co-workers or acquaintances can be a lifeline. However, it isn’t always easy to find the right words to say to someone who is grieving. We sometimes end up saying the wrong things or saying nothing at all.
There are a few things to realize before you go ahead and try and support a loved one through their grief. Firstly, everyone grieves differently. Grief shows up in many, unexpected ways, from extreme anger or sadness to guilt, fear, and everything outside and in-between, grief brings up emotions that are sometimes hard to comprehend. Just because grief is messy and difficult, doesn’t make it unhealthy. Secondly, having a response, any response to losing someone or something you love is a part of that love. It isn’t detrimental or wrong, it’s only natural. As someone who is offering compassion and support, you do not need to understand the person’s grief to be there for them. But it’s natural to feel anxious about possibly saying the “wrong” thing in a vulnerable time. So then, what are the right ways to support someone who’s grieving?
1. Instead of making them feel better, make them feel heard
Many a time we offer condolences or words of hope and compassion to empathize with those grieving but we don’t realize that it’s not what they wish to hear at that very moment. The innate desire to make it better for them drives us to say comforting things that we think may “fix” the situation. But grief cannot be “fixed”, it isn’t a problem and doesn’t work on a timeline. Instead of offering platitudes that you think may make them feel better, consider offering simple support. This can be as easy as lending an ear or a shoulder to cry on. Try not to make them reach out to you for help – be available for tangible things like taking care of the laundry, picking up their kids from school, helping out with groceries or supper, etc. Your presence will be enough to make them feel supported and whenever they wish to express themselves, the door will be wide open for them to approach you.
2. Embrace the awkward
The best of us doubt ourselves in vulnerable situations like this. You may wonder, “What if I say the wrong thing and upset them?” But the truth is, there is no right or wrong thing to say. We aren’t perfect, we aren’t meant to be. Embrace the awkwardness but always believe that you’re coming from a good place. When you’re anxious about what to say, just try being honest instead. Say something like, “I have no idea how to help you in this situation but whatever you need, you can always count on me.” Don’t get worried if the one you’re trying to support tells you off. Respect their boundaries and ask them how you can provide them with support. Help starts by understanding what they need instead of focusing on how you can help them.
3. Accept their feelings
Yes, it’s great to check in on someone who’s grieving but be prepared to support them in whatever response they give. “How have you been?” is quite the loaded question and you’ll probably be faced with difficult feelings that they’re going through. This doesn’t mean you need to soothe or change them; all you can do is hold these feelings for them and make them feel validated. People want to feel heard and understood. Validating difficult emotions can help people feel less alienated and normalize their emotions.
4. Don’t fear the worst
There’s no script for every single situation, life is impromptu and unpredictable. Fearing the worst and being concerned about making the person grieving even sadder can be counterproductive. Staying true to yourself and your relationship with that person, and going with what feels right will show the person you love and care for them. Don’t shy away from saying their loved one’s name, or feel like you have to tiptoe around avoiding situations or places that could remind them of their loss – they’re not forgetting it any time soon.
What not to say to someone who is grieving?
Of course, whenever we’re trying to support someone grieving, we all come from a kind place. But there are certain statements that can end up feeling dismissive or insensitive at that particular moment. Such as:
- “At least you got to spend so much time with them.”
- “They’re in a better place now.”
- “This is a part of life.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
These sorts of responses occur because we’re conditioned to project our emotions onto others through our responses. Your discomfort of the situation overshadows their honest emotions at that moment, telling them that navigating this hard time is awkward and difficult for you. Often such statements are accompanied by a “so don’t feel so bad.” at the end which can make things worse than they already are. This second half of the sentence disregards or diminishes the one grieving’s pain. It tells them that it’s not okay to feel how they’re feeling.
We need to realize that grief cannot be “solved”, it’s an experience to be carried. While it’s not your responsibility to carry someone’s hardship, it’s enough to simply show up in ways you can and be honest if and when you fall short. Always make sure your loved one knows that though you might inevitable get it wrong at times, it doesn’t mean that you’re not always there for them.
These positive affirmations can help you heal emotionally.