When you are confronted with grief in the life of someone you care about, you’re sorry. You wish this hadn’t happened. You wish everything could be better for everyone. But practically, what do you say? How can you be sure you won’t make things worse? How can you offer comfort during a visit to a grieving friend?
Comfort isn’t the Same as Cheering Up
Many well-meaning visitors make small talk rather than discuss the biggest thing in the griever’s life. Friends won’t mention the deceased’s name and use every conceivable euphemism to avoid saying “died.” This is usually a reflection of the visitors’ and friends’ discomfort, and it’s not helpful to a mourner.
This is a time for honesty. Never use a platitude. Mention the lost loved one by name. Refer to their “death,” not their “passing” or “leaving.” The goal is to signal that you are ready to listen and hear what the mourner wants to talk about.
Mourners Needs to Mourn
Instead of making small talk, share one of your memories of the deceased. If you didn’t know the deceased, ask the mourner to tell you about them. “The helpful thing is to talk about the person as you knew him in the fullness of life, to recreate a living picture to replace the picture of death,” says Rabbi Henry E. Kagan in Keys to Happiness.
You might bring a smile to their face–or you might see them cry. Both are healthy responses. If you think the only healthy thing for a mourner to do is start feeling happier, you will feel awful for “making” your friend cry when in reality they’re having a necessary and normal grieving response.
Yes, your grieving friend will be difficult to watch.
This is About Them
Because it’s about them, never give advice, talk about your own experiences, or even express your own grief about the same loss. To avoid venting inappropriately, refer to the Circle Theory, as explained by clinical psychologist Susan Silk in a now-famous op-ed for the LA Times.
It’s normal to experience your own grief over the death, heartache after seeing your friend in distress, or stress from helping them. You will be better able to help the mourner if you care of your own emotional needs. However, sharing these burdens with the mourner or someone closer to the mourner than you is selfish, even if well-meaning. Your friend’s support group is not your support group. Instead, talk about your struggles to people who are further removed from the grief than you are.
Coming next: Why the last thing you say to a grieving friend should never be “let me know if you need anything.”