Offering Comfort to Grieving Friends
My close friend is grieving, not because of a death, but because his three children recently packed up and moved (they’re in a band and went to California for a recording opportunity). Just last year he went through a divorce, so I know he’s feeling somewhat abandoned at this point.
The problem is that I don’t know what to say to him, either to comfort or cheer him. I don’t know what to say when somebody has died, much less when one’s family has packed up and moved across the country. Are there words for situations like this?
One risk when speaking with someone in my friend’s position is that you end up sounding like the “grief police” – well-intentioned but misguided helpers who suggest to the bereaved person there’s a correct way to grieve. We all know there isn’t, but words are apt to come out wrong with even the best of intentions.
A Learned Skill
Val Walker, a grief education and author of “The Art of Comforting”, suggests that offering comfort is a skill. We are not, however, taught how to do this, and because we’re a ‘fix-it society’, we think we are supposed to make someone feel better rather than just listen to what he or she has to say. Alternatively, we often avoid people who are vulnerable or in need because we aren’t comfortable with their emotions.
While everyone has their own preferences, most people when surveyed said they: 1) did not want food in the aftermath of a loved one’s death; 2) did not want to rehash the circumstances and/or events of the death; and 3) did not want to hear religious phrases like, “Now your mother is in heaven looking down on you.”
Simple Tips for Consoling
According to experts, here are a few other things you’ll want to avoid saying when consoling a friend:
- Stop crying, you’re only making it worse.
- At least he/she isn’t suffering anymore.You must be strong. God only gives us what we’re strong enough to get through.
- He/she was at least old enough to live a full life.
- You’re lucky. At least you still [have money, are young and attractive, didn’t have to see him/her suffer].
- Don’t dwell on it. He/she would want you to move forward.
It’s also important to avoid phrases like, “I know how you feel” and “Call me if you need anything.” Grieving is, first and foremost, too personal to think you know how someone else feels. Even if you’ve been through a similar experience, everyone feels differently and has unique relationships. And asking the bereaved to call could be too taxing. Simply let him or her know you’re available to talk and will continue to be until the time is right.
Sympathy, Not Empathy
If you do have the opportunity to converse with the bereaved, keep your statements simple. “I am sorry for your loss” will suffice at first. Then, on an ongoing basis, you can remark with, “I am thinking of you.” And don’t launch into a detailed account of your own loss of a loved one. You want to give just enough information so the individual you’re trying to comfort knows you can relate. With this in mind, you might want to say, “I lost my mother, too. What is it like for you?”
Another option is to send a greeting card, which is a very acceptable way to express your condolences without having to verbalize sentiments. But, keep in mind that those grieving will need your support long after the services have concluded. Follow up with a phone call or another card that reads, “Thinking of you” to keep the lines of communication open without being pushy. These acts let the bereaved know you care, which is what you’re really trying to convey.