When a friend has suffered the death of a loved one, we want to help but often we are unsure what to say or do. Even worse, we worry that what we think we should do could be exactly the opposite of what we actually should say, and could cause damage to our friend or to our friendship.
We may mistakenly believe it’s our job to cheer up the grieving person, or to fix their grief when in fact, those are the two most common misconceptions around grieving, says Megan Devine, a Portland, Oregon grief counsellor.
It was Devine’s experience with the well-intentioned but misguided efforts of friends and family when her partner died suddenly at the age of 39 that inspired her to found a grief support website and to author the book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK.
Country Guide reached out to Devine for some tips and strategies for supporting a grieving friend. While emphasizing that there are no hard and fast rules, Devine offers us these strategies and practical suggestions.
Don’t make assumptions about what the grieving person needs. Devine recommends approaching the situation with curiosity and using your knowledge of the person to offer concrete solutions. For example, if you know the garbage truck comes on Mondays, ask if they would like you to get the garbage and recyclables out to the road for them. Devine’s chart on the opposite page is a useful guide.
Don’t say “call me if you need anything.” The grieving person likely doesn’t have the energy or capacity to figure out what they need, who could do it for them, and then overcome their aversion to asking for help to make a call.
Instead, Devine says it would be more helpful to tell your grieving friend you would like to know how you can best support them, and then, after suggesting a few options, ask: “Does any of this sound useful to you?” It’s important to ask their permission before going ahead and doing something.
Grief is not a problem to be solved. Your goal is to be a companion to your grieving friend, not to try to fix their grief. Let the grieving person take the lead, says Devine, noting it’s okay just to sit with them in silence.
Avoid platitudes. Devine advises against attempting to soothe your friend’s pain by offering clichés such as “your loved one is in a better place.” Instead, she recommends sticking to the simplest level. “This hurts. I love you. I’m here.”
And yes, you can support a long-distance friend. Even if you live at a distance from the grieving person, there are still many ways to be there for them. Remember, the same principles apply, says Devine. Some tangible ways to support your friend could include arranging a meal delivery campaign, calling the person every day at a set time, or listening to them if they need to rant.
If you’re finding it hard to support your friend, that’s not surprising, says Devine. “None of this stuff is easy,” she says. “It’s going to be awkward and that’s okay.”
Also recognize that even if you have experienced a significant loss yourself, it can be difficult to know how to support someone else, cautions Devine. We need to remember that each of us is unique, and each loss is unique, so what worked for us may not be what another person needs.
Grief is messy and the death will have an impact on many people, which can make it difficult to navigate relationships in the aftermath, says Devine. This underscores why it’s important to have those challenging conversations instead of making assumptions about what your friend needs.
Comfort in, dump out
Ring Theory can help us avoid saying the wrong thing, says Devine. While struggling with breast cancer, clinical psychologist Susan Silk developed the Ring Theory with the help of her friend Barry Goldman as a guide to help those wanting to provide emotional support to a friend or family member struggling with serious illness, the death of loved one, or other major life challenge.
This is how it works. The person experiencing the crisis is in the centre of the ring. If you draw a circle around that person, those most affected by the crisis, the spouse, children, or parents, are in that circle. The next most impacted level of friends, family, colleagues, etc. are in the next concentric circles, in order of impact. Intimate friends would be in the smaller rings, less intimate friends in the larger ones.
“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the centre of the crisis, the goal is to help,” write Silk and Goldman in a 2013 Los Angeles Times article, “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing.”
“Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This must really be hard for you’ or ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’ Don’t say, ‘You should hear what happened to me’ or ‘Here’s what I would do if I were you.’ And don’t say, ‘This is really bringing me down.’
“If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring. Comfort IN, Dump OUT.”
An epidemic of unspoken grief
Some forms of grief go unrecognized in our “grief phobic” society, points out Devine. In her practice, she sees many people who are still grieving years after the death of a sibling or friend because the loss was never acknowledged.
Unresolved grief from these “invisible losses” can lead to other problems such as addictions, anxiety, depression, interpersonal violence, or social isolation, and it applies to many kinds of pain, not just grief from losing a loved one.
Says Devine: “We have an epidemic of unspoken grief with its roots in not being heard.”
Supporting a grieving person in the workplace
It can be difficult to know how to support a grieving person in the workplace. Melina Pearson, outreach co-ordinator with the Kitchener chapter of the grief support organization Bereaved Families of Ontario, offers some guidance.
It’s important to understand that grief affects a person not only emotionally, but also mentally and physically, which in turn can impact productivity, says Pearson. “The grieving person may feel hazy, or have difficulty comprehending what you’re saying,” she says.
On the job, when a person returns from the standard three to five days of bereavement leave, their grief is just beginning, says Pearson. Since grief can look different for different people, Pearson recommends having a conversation early on to let the grieving person know that you are approachable and responsive to their needs.
Flexibility and a modified work schedule may make the return to work easier for them along with the understanding that their needs may change from day to day.
A few months after the loss when the shock wears off it may actually become more difficult for the grieving person, points out Pearson. The bereaved person’s grief may also be triggered by special occasions, holidays, and the anniversary of the death.
Pearson also advises managers to be on the lookout for overworking. Some people may throw themselves into their work but this can be an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Pearson has one final piece of advice. Co-workers often avoid saying the name of the person who died, fearing it will upset the bereaved person but Pearson says in most cases, they like to hear their loved one’s name, knowing they haven’t been forgotten.