Talking to people about grief recently, the two most common statements I hear from friends, acquaintances or colleagues are;
“I just didn’t know what to say to you,” and,
“I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what to do!”
We’ve all felt like this at some point in the past. I know I have.
That painful awkwardness. The heartfelt empathy towards your friend who’s hurting so much! Combined with a wincing, shrinking knowledge that there is NOTHING you say or do could possibly comfort them right now. Plus the fear that you’ll say something silly or ‘wrong’.
I think it’s totally natural to feel those emotions and have that self-doubt! What’s important, if we really want to help a grieving friend, is how we choose to react to them.
Two very powerful aspects of our physiology and psychology as humans are our ability to feel empathy (well, most of us) and our capability to intentionally focus our attention. i.e. unlike animals whose attention is captured in response to stimuli.
We are ‘rational agents’. What this means is that we can choose to take action in response to our situation and emotions. (Did you know that on average, there is a five-second window of opportunity for humans to take action following an organic thought or idea?)
When I was a teenager, a friend of mine lost her father suddenly to an aggressive illness. I had absolutely no idea what to do or what to say and turned to my mum for advice. Promptly I was dispatched to said friend’s house, with a few of my mates and a huge bunch of flowers.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say exactly,” my mum advised. “Right now it’s important to just show up and give her a big hug and let her know that you are there for her.”
Mum was right, of course (aren’t they always?) and my friends and I stumbled and shuffled our way into the hallway and hugged our friend and stayed a little while.
It was awkward. I felt terribly uncomfortable with the emotions that I was experiencing. We all did. Our friend was even sadder than we could have imagined. But that was the reality of the situation. And we had a choice to either show up and demonstrate our love and care for our friend, or not.
As an adult, this scene has repeated itself many times for us all. And it never gets easier. But, this is life. And death.
So, getting back to those two conundrums that I started with.
What do you SAY to a griever? There are two pieces of advice I would give here:
- Trust your instincts and say something. It’s way better to say something when you next see them than not to and let it hang in the air between you. Try not to let the painful awkwardness of the situation prevent you from taking action.
- Keep it simple. A heartfelt, “I’m so sorry,” and a genuine hug is perfectly acceptable. Even saying, “I don’t know what else to say,” is ok too! In the circumstances there is usually nothing else you can say that will or could ever actually help that person. And they’ll know that. Trust me.
That’s certainly how I felt. The situation is horrid. It’s so very, very painful and disorienting. But your friend will likely feel supported by you, simply by you expressing your sympathy to them, whether in person or over the phone. You can always write more detailed words of condolence later in a card or a letter once you’ve had time to digest everything a little.
What can you DO for a griever? Well, that depends a lot on the person. All you can try to do is take a few deep breaths and think about what they might need or want from you right now.
- Are they the type of person who would want to only be with their family at a time like this?
- Are they the type of person who needs company, or to be alone?
- Will they need practical support in terms of groceries, help with childcare, borrowing a car or being driven to appointments, help making the many phone calls that need to be made, manning their email inbox or phone?
There are lots of things you can do to help. So I reckon, just put it out there and offer something, anything! The practicalities of the situation just felt so overwhelming for me when Michael died. And that feeling has lurked around for a surprisingly long time.
I remember being incredibly grateful to Michael’s uncle, who put food in front of me and our close family for three days after we had left the hospital. I had no idea what time it was, what I was wearing or what I should do next, other than keep looking at my list of people to call and things to do. It was a complete blur. I know that if he’d asked me what I would like to eat, I wouldn’t have known or cared. But Paul just got on with it and put food in front of us. And thank heavens for that!
I remember the week I got back to our home from Brisbane after Michael’s accident. The most precious things my girlfriends did for me was to put some food in the fridge and work out a roster of who was going to be at the flat with me. They knew I’d be mortified at not having tea or a biscuit to offer to people who called in (yeah I know, silly right?) And they knew it would be too exhausting to be making endless cups of tea for all the callers and do dishes and talk to them and remember to shower and make something to eat and answer my phone and address emails and manage my family’s travel plans and remember to drink water and open the 10 new cards that came in the mail and remember to go to the toilet (yes, really) and put the three new bunches of flowers that arrived in a vase…
You see, grief can be exhausting. You don’t realise how tired you are until the 4th visitor of the day has left and someone reminds you that you were awake from 3am. I was lost and really overwhelmed for weeks, maybe months. Some days I still am.
So maybe, rather than asking your friend, “Is there anything I can do?” which might be met with a confused frown and a, “I don’t think so.”
Try offering them something specific and practical if you can. “Would you like me to ….
- man the phones for an hour so you can have a shower / nap
- take some laundry home to do for you
- collect family from the airport/train station
- take the kids out for a play at the park
- come to the bank/doctors/an appointment with you?”
These types of things were all really helpful as the everyday tasks that I would usually have done without a second thought, became actions that required monumental amounts of physical and mental energy.
Perhaps another way to look at these statements is, what NOT to say or do? In this regard I’d like to defer to an excellent online resource I found called, What’s Your Grief? A site full of great articles and advice.
This one is a particular favourite of mine… an illustrated article about what not to say to a griever. (It’s so funny) Or if you’re more of a words than pictures kinda person, try this version.
And if you’d like to read more about what to do for a friend who’s grieving, try supporting a friend after a death. It has lots of good suggestions.
Here’s one final suggestion from me; just don’t be that person who turns up at their place unannounced and and stays for three hours.
Please, keep being kind to each other.