Tuesday, July 17, 2012

At a Loss for Words (For Once)

Let’s say someone you know is grieving a friend’s death.

Let’s say you didn’t know their friend, but you know they were close.

And let’s say you want to be supportive in their time of grief.

Where do you start?

If you’re like many people – maybe even most people – you may find yourself at a loss for words. I’ve seen people who normally talk a mile a minute be absolutely tongue-tied at the thought of supporting someone who’s grieving.

They might mumble, “I’m sorry for your loss.” And then what?

If you ask people who grieve, they will tell you how much they value the support of others. When it’s a friend who has died, rather than a family member, they are particularly grateful to those who recognize the gravity of the loss.

Then what?

Here are a couple of ideas of how you can support someone who’s lost a friend:

-Shut up and let them talk. Don’t compare your own experience, unless they ask. Give them a safe place to share their grief.

-Ask them about their friend. They might not want to talk about it, but again, you’re giving them a safe place to share if they do.

Can you think of any other things you can do?

What did someone do for you when you were grieving a friend that you wish everyone would do (or not)?


Sharon Lippincott said...

Amen to everything you wrote. Thanks for the great post.

In the "something else" category, please don't assume they are torn up with grief. Many are, but if it's a long anticipated loss, with slow and agonizing decline, they may be feeling relief and embarrassed to say so. I was in that situation after my mother died. An unexpectedly large number of people sent cards expressing sorrow for my loss or got a gently pious look on their faces as they mouthed similar platitudes.

I was deeply touched that they cared enough to send the card, or mouth the words (that's part of our cultural ritual that makes us all feel a tad more comfortable in the situation), and also sorry they apparently didn't get it about the situation. Most of the time I didn't even try to explain, and that was okay. I did appreciate their concern. Words didn't matter.

I did appreciate questions about my mother and her life. I appreciated questions about how I was doing. I sincerely answered with the generality "Oh, fine." I probably would have done that even if it hadn't been so, but the question and answer ritual was a connection that mattered more than the words.

If you know it's a situation like mine, you can gently say something like "So, it's finally over. How are you doing?" I've used that line a number of times and it usually does open a more candid conversation.

Another line that has worked well in these situations is, "No matter how ready we think we are, it's always a shock." That shows a little more empathy without going into your own story.

If they do look stressed out, you might use a statement like, "It must be tough for you..." I sometimes take a deep breath and venture a question like "was it sudden?" and then let them take the lead on further discussion.

Your attitude of caring will say even more than the words.

Friend Grief said...

Sharon -
Thanks for your very thoughtful comments and terrific suggestions.
I think it's hard to think of questions that can't be answered with yes or no. Sometimes people want to know it's okay to talk. But they also have to feel like it's just as okay to NOT talk.
And you're right - if your attitude is of caring and not morbid curiosity, that speaks volumes about how much you truly care about them.

Cindy Adams said...

Great advice.."Let them talk" I always felt better when I talked about my loss. It validated our relationship:)

Friend Grief said...

Great point, Cindy. Reminds me of a Doctor Who quote: "as long as you remember him, he's not gone."