Knowing how to support a grieving friend can be difficult. Often, we approach their suffering as something that has to be fixed or solved, and we can become paralyzed, awkward, and even absent when we aren’t able to do that. What is the right thing to say when someone is hurting? Are there specific statements to avoid? The truth is that there are no decisive rules for consoling someone in mourning, and the best way to support them can be unclear.
What is clear is that everyone has their own preferred way of receiving support. Just like people experience love in different ways, no two people will want the same type of support. Frequent visits may comfort one person and annoy another, which is why it’s important to be flexible and open to your friend’s unique way of processing grief.
Although you can’t take the pain away, you can create a comfortable space for your friend to share their feelings. Anyone who has suffered a loss can attest to the fact that just being there is what matters most.
So what does “being there” for a friend who is grieving look like? Here are suggestions from people who have lived through a loss.
Say the deceased person’s name.
“I’m sorry for your loss” can feel very impersonal. Say the name of the person who has died. This allows your friend to share memories and shed tears. “I enjoy people speaking about my late wife,” says Major Rogers, a California man who lost his wife Natalie to cancer when she was 35 and he was 41. “I don’t want to be the person who always brings [her] up, but I enjoy when others do because it gives me the opportunity to reminisce about her and remember her.”
Food writer and recipe developer Jennie Perillo agrees. She lost her husband Michael to a rare autoimmune disease when she was just 37 years-old. “I still love hearing my late husband’s name,” she says, “and it’s been 10 1/2 years since he died.”
Perillo’s favorite moments are when she meets old friends and they share their stories of Michael, adding that she and her current husband, who didn’t know Michael, talk about him often. She acknowledges, though, that hearing your loved ones name can be difficult in the immediate aftermath of the loss, and suggests simply asking your friend their preference.
Avoid asking “How are you?” and making other glib statements.
The answer to the above question is obvious, and asking it can make a grieving person feel like they have to be positive for your sake. According to grief and loss expert David Kessler of Grief.com, there are a number of no-go phrases to avoid when consoling a friend in mourning. These include “There’s a reason for everything;” “I know how you feel;” and any statement that starts with “At least,” among others. Phrases like these can diminish your friend’s pain, and make him or her feel like they’re being dramatic. This form of toxic positivity will do more harm than good.
Check in regularly just to say hello, and to let your friend know that you’re thinking of them. (Putting reminders in your calendar can be helpful). Most bereaved people find it difficult to reach out and need others to take the lead. Be mindful, though, that checking in doesn’t mean dropping by unannounced or forcing an invitation. The health experts at Harvard Medical School say that accepting a “no” without judgment or pressure is key, and they recommend building in loopholes that allow your friend to gracefully decline invitations.
Give an unexpected gift.
Sending a small gift like homemade cookies, a thoughtful card, or a good book is a wordless way of letting a grieving friend know they’re on your mind. Gifts need not be expensive or store-bought. The thought is what truly counts here.
Are there any chores you can do or errands you can run for your friend? Researchers at Seattle’s UW Medicine note that when grieving a loss, daily tasks and to-do lists can be overwhelming. Something as simple as doing the laundry, cooking a meal, or taking out the trash can be a tremendous help.
Listen instead of advising.
Working through trauma requires repetition. Your friend is likely to tell the same stories and share the same emotions several times. Unless you are asked for advice, keep it to yourself. What your friend needs most is a non-judgmental ear.
Continue to be there after the crowds have left.
The days and weeks after a loss can be a whirlwind — a flood of calls, cards, and visits from friends and loved ones. Eventually, though, the phone stops ringing, and the reality of the loss truly sets in. It’s here that your support is most needed.
“[People] pick up and move on rather quickly,” says Rogers, adding that this is when the bereaved feel their grief most deeply. “[They] are just starting on their new journey, and that’s when the sorrow is peaking.”
It’s here that showing continued support is crucial, says Perillo. “Over the years, I’ve had many people reach out to ask me what they can do to support a newly grieving friend. I tell them to set a reminder in their phone for six months from now, and then a few months from there, and so on, to check in and say hello. Let them know you still love them and care.”
It’s been said that death is life’s only certainty. Indeed, it will touch us all at some point, which is why the best measure of who we are may be how we show up for the living.
These suggestions are by no means comprehensive, but they will help to ensure that your friend feels loved, listened to, and less alone as they grieve. This — as anyone who has ever lost a loved one will tell you — can be the difference between mourning and despair.