How to support someone at their time of loss

Written by Suraj Shah.

Do you know someone who recently faced the death of a loved one?

What was the first thought that entered your mind?  What was the first thing you did?

Chances are that you first thought “oh no” (or “oh shit!”) and at that moment you stumbled because you had no clue about the best way to reach out to them.

Should I go see them, give them a call, send them an SMS, send an email, write a letter, write on their Facebook wall, send flowers and a card, or do nothing at all?

Then there’s the question about what to say?

Do I ask what happened, say sorry about their loss, ask them how they are feeling, tell them how I’m feeling, or say “It’s probably all for the best”?

In our society, death is such a forbidden topic, that it’s no wonder we stumble when really we have a chance to shine and be a pillar of strength and warmth for our friends and family at their time of greatest need.

What to say to someone who has faced a loss

Although there is no “right” thing to say, certainly avoid the following phrases:

  • “I know how you feel”
  • “Time heals all wounds”
  • “Don’t dwell on it”
  • “It’s in the natural order of things”
  • “It’s time for you to move on”
  • “Be grateful you had him so long”
  • “You’re never given anything you can’t deal with”
  • “It’s probably all  for the best”
  • “Don’t feel bad”
  • “He lived a full life”

All that these insensitive platitudes will do is that they will hurt and upset your friend who will feel that you haven’t really acknowledged their loss.

Instead, consider this approach:

  1. Simply and honestly tell your friend how sorry you are for their loss.  Your honest will give them a breath of fresh air, because most other people will be presenting them with the above insensitivities.
  2. Don’t be tempted to avoid saying anything.  It is horrible for the bereaved person to wrongly feel that you don’t care enough about them and not get in touch.
  3. Do what feels right in your heart that communicates that you are with them, so that they do not feel alone.  They will pick up on your kindness.

Supporting your grieving friend through Active Listening

Although you can not take away the pain of someone suffering from a huge loss, one of the best things you can do to “be there” for them is to actively listen and help them express their feelings.

The technique of active listening can be cultivated by letting the other person express his or her own feelings, whilst suspending your own judgements.

Advice is generally the last thing they are looking for, even if they’ve asked for it.

How to Actively Listen:

  1. Put your full attention onto them and listen to what they are saying.
  2. In your own words, repeat back to them what you have understood from that they said.
  3. Check with them whether you have understood them correctly.
  4. Ask them to fill in any gaps in your understanding.
  5. Offer a response ONLY once they indicate that they feel fully understood.

Supporting your grieving friend by helping out

If talking and listening aren’t your strong points, there are plenty of ways to show your love and support by taking on some chores.  Here are a few ideas:

  • cleaning and tidying
  • organising mail
  • fielding phone calls
  • cooking a few meals
  • chauffeuring
  • washing clothes & ironing
  • helping them pick out what to wear

Your role as a friend

Remember that through all of this, you are in no way responsible for making the situation any better or taking away your friend’s pain.  Only they themselves, through a steady committed path, can overcome their own pain.  The most important thing you can do is empower your friend to keep expressing his feelings.

Have you faced a loss yourself?  What did your friends do well?  What could they have done better?

(Photo courtesy of megyarsh)