It can be hard to know how to respond when someone you care about is grieving. I found myself in this difficult situation a few weeks back, struggling to find ways to support no fewer than three close friends who were each dealing with a devastating loss.
It’s not that I haven’t been forced to navigate the treacherous waters of grief myself. I have. But it feels different to be on the other side of the grief equation: the person offering comfort as opposed to the person being comforted. I knew I wanted to be there for my friends and yet I found myself struggling to find the right words.
And so I turned to my online friends for advice. I posted to my various social media feeds, asking them if there was something someone had said or done that had brought them comfort during their own time of loss; and what advice they would offer to other people who were looking for ways to support a grieving person.
The people who responded to my post were incredibly generous with what was obviously hard-earned wisdom. They told me what they had—and hadn’t—found helpful in the aftermath of their own devastating losses. What follows is a brief summary of what I learned from them as a result of reading and responding to well over a hundred comments over a period of days. I learned so much from them and I’m hoping you will, too.
Understand that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all response to anything, including grief. What can be comforting to one grieving person may be hurtful or even offensive to someone else. Some people find the question, “How are you?” kind and caring; others, intrusive or annoying. Even something as simple as responding to a text message with a broken-hearted emoji can be interpreted as either supportive or trite. Allow what you know about the grieving person—their circumstances, their personality, their worldview—to guide your response.
More important than what you say is the fact that you care enough to say something—or to be willing to sit with that person in compassionate silence. Being willing to witness and honour the pain of someone’s grief can be an incredible gift to that person. As one person who responded to my post told me: “It wasn’t what people said but what they did that meant the most to me: sitting in awkward silence as I processed my loss; giving me time to find the words and speak; not judging while I cried.”
Make an effort to steer clear of platitudes and false consolation. While you might be tempted to tell a grieving person that “everything happens for a reason,” that kind of empty statement is more likely to anger than comfort them. Ditto for any statement that starts with “At least.” (“At least their death wasn’t unexpected.” “At least they didn’t linger.” “At least you’re young enough to have other children or marry again.”) Any of those statements could be interpreted as an attempt to minimize that person’s loss. Rather than relying on tired phrases that are more likely to hurt a person than to help, simply speak from the heart.
If you find yourself at a loss for words, be honest about the fact that you’re finding this hard. Less important than landing on the right words is finding a way to connect with the grieving person in a way that communicates just how much you care. You will feel less pressured to “say the right thing” if you look for opportunities to move beyond words. Maybe they could use some help working their way through the long list of tasks that have to be taken care of in the wake of a person’s death—everything from going to the bank to meeting with the lawyer. Ditto for staying on top of the day-to-day stuff: picking up groceries, making meals, doing laundry. Let them know that you’re happy to do whatever would be most helpful to them right now.
Give the grieving person permission to feel whatever it is they’re feeling for as long as they need. There’s no such thing as a statute of limitations on grief—nor is there any sort of one-size-fits-all predictable roadmap when it comes to grieving. Ditto for any expectation that they’re supposed to be at a particular point in their grief by the time the one-year anniversary rolls around. Every grief experience is as unique as the person who died. That needs to be both acknowledged and honoured.
Keep reaching out to your friend, even if you don’t hear back from them. Especially if you don’t hear back from them. Your friend may be treading water emotionally, barely keeping their head above water. Even though they might not have the capacity to respond, they will still appreciate knowing that you’re thinking about them and you care.
Let the grieving person know that you’re in this for the long-term—and mean it. Keep showing up long after the sympathy cards have stopped showing up in the mail and the funeral bouquets have died. Tell them—through your actions as well as your words—“I’m not going anywhere.”
Encourage the grieving person to keep sharing memories of their loved one—and don’t be afraid to chime in with a few memories of your own. Sometimes people worry about upsetting the grieving person by mentioning their loved one’s name when, in fact, it’s much more upsetting for that person to never hear their loved one’s name mentioned at all. That kind of erasure can leave them feeling even lonelier in their grief.
Recognize that there’s still a lot of silence around death in our culture, which means that most of us have to educate ourselves about grief. Here are a few resources to add to what you’ve already figured out about communicating with someone who is grieving.
- Brené Brown on empathy and the importance of avoiding “at least” statements
- Nora McInery’s Ted Talk on moving forward (not “moving on”) from grief
- Megan Devine’s Refuge in Grief website and her bestselling book It’s Okay That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand.
Ann Douglas is the author of Navigating The Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women (Douglas & McIntyre, 2022) and numerous bestselling books about pregnancy and parenting. She lives in Golden Lake, Ontario, where she is hard at work trying to teach herself how to write her first novel.