Love in Action - Helping Your Grieving Friend

When in doubt, be human. Karl Menninger
(with permission and thanks to

The time immediately after my mother's death was fresh in my memory, or so I thought as I began to create this page. As I reflect on the few days leading up to her funeral, I am stunned that I don't remember much of it.

In the time shortly after a death, there is usually a flurry of activity: funeral arrangements, calling hours, notifying family, and lots of people stopping by or phoning. In a small town, or close neighborhood, there are many gifts of food.

I know there was a lot happening around me, but I wasn't paying attention. My mother's death was unexpected. My sister and I were in shock. The most helpful thing one of my sister's friends did for us was to take charge. She fielded phone calls, answered the doorbell, and organized the food. She labeled each dish so that it could be returned with ease to its owner and started a list of names to use as a guide for later thank you notes.

The comment I most appreciated at the time of my mother's death was, "I am so sorry. I loved your mother, too." I cherished the moments when people shared stories and memories of my mother. Frequently, a hug was more soothing than a thousand words. I also needed to recount the difficult time after surgery, which led to her death, and mourners who listened helped me the most.

My mother befriended young people. One such young woman told me a humorous story about Mom and lacy red undergarments. I won't go into detail, but I laughed out loud while standing beside Mom's casket. Disrespectful? Not at all. The humor captured the essence of my mother. Laughter can provide blessed relief from the albatross of grief.

People who want to help seem to know what to do in the hectic time immediately following a death. But after a week or so, they return to their own lives and we are left alone to grieve and feel empty. The rest of this section offers ways to help others after the initial rituals of mourning are over.

I believe the most valuable gifts you have to offer a grieving friend or loved one are the gifts of time and listening. When we are in pain, we have a powerful desire to share our burden with someone who will listen and care. Grief demands that we tell our story--again, and again, and again. This retelling helps us review the emotional memories of our deceased loved one, both good and bad, and is a vital step in healing.

Listening sounds simple, but it requires real effort to listen well. We may start out with the intention to listen, but we can change our purpose of listening to something else without even noticing it. For example, we start by listening, but end up needing to be an expert, to correct, to defend a point of view, to offer advice, or to escape pain by abruptly changing the subject.

To glimpse how difficult listening is for most people, try this: Notice others in conversation and see how often someone in the listening role shifts away from listening before the teller has finished speaking, sometimes interrupting the teller in mid-sentence. Most of us are so busy thinking of what we are going to say next, we don't hear what the other person is trying to convey. Staying focused on the intent to listen takes practice.

I have heard it said that silence is golden and no section about helping others is complete without mentioning the value of silence. Most people are uncomfortable with silence. We seem to have a need to fill up the empty spaces. Sometimes all we can do for a grieving person is to be present in the moment without words. Our nearness is all that matters.

Speaking for the sole purpose of filling a silence is not active listening. Stay with your role as listener. Your grieving friend may be introspective, confused, uncertain, or remembering. The internal work is important. Strive to understand the speechless moments for what they are--and give the gift of silence.

Friends in mourning need your undivided attention: grievers want to talk about their grief, not yours. In the beginning, it is most helpful to listen to your friend’s grief feelings rather than share your own experience. People new to grief often misinterpret your intentions to help and sharing a story that begins, “I remember when my father died,” shifts the focus away from your grieving friend. That’s not what you intend, of course, but the newly bereaved are in the grips of their loss and need to talk about their dear one who has died.

I remember telling a friend by phone that I had returned the day before from my mother's funeral. She responded with, "That's a bummer" and then launched into a blow-by-blow description of her afternoon. I know she was feeling her own stress, but a simple condolence would have gone a long way with me. My intellect understands she had nothing to give me that day, but I hung up feeling utterly dismissed with some unkind thoughts about my friend.

Share your experience if asked, but a good rule of thumb is to wait until the shock of death changes to the reality of the loss. This shift in grief is a very rugged part of your friend’s journey. Sharing your own experience, strength and hope will be a gift of healing when your friend is ready to hear you. Right now he hurts too much to talk of someone else's pain, or the possibility of ever feeling better. Your greatest gift is listening to the sorrow.

Avoid giving unsolicited advice because it can be taken as a personal criticism. Phrases such as, "If I were you, I would..." suggest a standard of behavior and imply you do not think your friend is measuring up. What worked for you may not be the best solution for another person. If your friend asks for advice, phrase suggestions carefully along the lines of, "I can't know what is best for you. You might consider..." Most of all, remember that people new to grief need empathy from you, not advice.

As a friend, it is not your job to be a therapist, but I'll offer some words of caution here. Expert intervention is needed if a person talks of harming self. Any threat of suicide is serious. In your role as helper, you can call 911, the police, a local suicide hotline, a family member, or get your friend to an emergency room, but please don't keep the threat of suicide to yourself. Take action on your friend's behalf.

Please refer to A Natural Desire for Reunion to learn more about suicide. Includes a summary of guidelines for helping those left to grapple with the aftermath of suicide.

Sometimes people who grieve become dependent on helpers and intensify their pleas for others to take care of them. If you sense this is happening with the one you are trying to help, accept your personal limits and encourage your grieving friend to seek professional counseling. Hospice organizations in most cities offer grief therapy support groups, at little or no cost, and are listed in the phone book.

Offer to attend a grief support group with your friend. Sometimes going with someone you know is easier, especially in the beginning. Your friend does not have to face a room full of strangers or a new situation alone. Don’t expect your grieving friend to jump at this idea, but it is in the realm of friendship to make the offer. Do this only if you are comfortable with the idea.

For a different perspective on grief, read The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss by Ruth Davis Konigsberg. She writes on page 16, "Our grief culture maintains that grief is unique, then offers a uniform set of instructions [on how to grieve]." From the back cover: "With this book, I hope to offer you a means of escape from our habitual ways of thinking about grief."

Konigsberg's work is thought provoking and well researched. Click A Change of Heart for my review of the book.

What can you do to help others who grieve? In the weeks after a significant loss, when everyone else has returned to their own lives, pick up the phone and call the person you want to help. Ask how he or she is doing--then be willing to listen to the answer with empathy and compassion. Not all grievers cry, but most have memories to share again and again, and stories to tell and retell, as part of normal grieving. Please remember that sorrow is a vital part of healing and grievers will be grateful for those who can sit with them without telling them to cheer up. For more on this, go to I'm Grieving As Fast As I Can.

No one can grieve all the time, however, no matter how close the relationship was before death. Grievers need to be encouraged to take breaks from their grief while still knowing it is safe to talk about their sadness. Invite your bereaved friend or loved one to join you for lunch or coffee, a walk, or other pleasant activity, but don't ignore the loss or act like nothing has happened. Allow the conversation to go where it needs to go.

You can't fix grief with cheer and grievers need to grieve. Despite your best efforts, your friend may decline your invitations to go out because grief takes huge amounts of energy. Ask again at a later time. Send a flower for no reason except to say I'm thinking of you.

A month after my mother died, I received an unexpected gift from a dear friend who lives in another state. In her note, she wrote: I am sending items to comfort you, as a mother would. The comfort package contained warm fuzzy socks, a candle, bath salts and body lotion, lavender-scented sachets, a CD of soft music and tea. It was one of the sweetest gestures of friendship I have ever known.

For more ideas on how to help, click Start Today. Refer to Good Intentions for the well-meaning, but unhelpful, things people say to the newly bereaved.

Perhaps you, too, have a friend who needs comforting right now. When we help from our hearts, we are putting love in action. Be a companion on the journey of grief. When in doubt, be human.

The following poem may be helpful in easing the burden of grief for a special friend. You can choose, instead, to send a personal favorite. Better yet, compose your own poetry. In the era of instant messaging, handwriting is a lost art. Slip the poem inside a handwritten letter; make a card yourself, print the poem on pretty paper; or yes, include it in an E-mail. It really is the thought that counts and the time you took to show you care.

Sharing in Your Sorrow
©2000 Abbey Press
I know this time of grief is so difficult for you,
And thinking of you hurting breaks my heart in two.

We can never really know how another person feels,
I only hope you know that my concern for you is real.

I just wish there was something more that I could do
To take away the sorrow that is weighing down on you.

Although I cannot change things, this I can extend--
My loving thoughts, my heartfelt prayers,
For you, my special friend.

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