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How to Help a Grieving Friend

What to say–and not say–when someone close to you has suffered a loss.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Dear Doctor,

A close friend I’ve known since college just lost her 15-year-old son in a car accident. I want to be there for her, but I’m struggling with how to be supportive of her—I’m so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

Sincerely,

“At a Loss for Words”

Dear At a Loss for Words:

The struggle you’re talking about is not uncommon. As a society, we’re really uncomfortable with death, and we often don’t want to be around someone who is grieving. The biggest gift we can give someone who has suffered a loss is to be willing to tolerate our own discomfort and anxiety about death so that we can fully be there for that person.

What doesn’t help, especially when someone is in the acute stages of grief, is to try to soothe them by saying, “They’re in a better place,” or “They’re with you in spirit.” No one who loses someone, especially tragically, really takes any comfort in those kinds of words. 

It’s much more helpful to say, “What’s the hardest part for you right now?” or “What does it feel like for you right now?” If your friend says, “My phone is never going to ring again,” or “I’m never going to tuck them in again at night,” instead of saying something encouraging like, “You’ll get through this,” it’s better to validate their feelings by saying something like, “You’re right. That must be the worst feeling in the world. I can’t imagine what that must feel like for you.”

But really, sometimes, what a friend needs most is for you to be able to sit with them and just be quiet and listen.

The other thing that is so important to remember is that there is no set timeline for grief. In my support group, we always say that you get through it, but you never get over it. The truth is that you learn to live with some kind of hole in your heart forever. So if you’re trying to support someone who is going through this, understand that this is not a short-term situation.

People always say that the second year of grieving is actually harder than the first. The first year, no one is mad at them for memorializing their loved one, and no one has an issue if they cancel the holidays. But by year two, many people expect you to get back to normal, and that can be very hard for someone who has suffered an unthinkable loss.

Never be afraid to keep talking about the loss, even many months or years later. It’s such a gift to be able to say to someone, two or three years later, something like, “What was your favorite thing to do with your son over the summer?” Your friend will love that someone recognizes that she never stops thinking about her son, and that you’re comfortable acknowledging their loss, even after a lot of time has gone by.

“People always say that the second year of grieving is actually harder than the first.”
Amy Kirschenblatt, Licensed Social Worker
Amy Kirschenblatt, Licensed Social Worker | Photo credit: The Well

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Published September 11th, 2018

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