The Do’s and Don’ts with Friends in Grief

If you’ve experienced bouts of grief and loss in your life — chances are, you have reached out to friends and family or they have reached out to you in support. You may have also been a friend or family member who has reached out to others who are grieving. If so, I thank you on their behalf! However, not all support is created equal — and some “support” can make the griever feel worse — triggered or compromised. They may react by lashing out, or withdrawing from “supporters” — which is the opposite of what they need. You might wonder how any support can be bad for grievers — especially when we approach support with the best intentions. However, from a poor choice of words, to assumptions, to advice, to minimizing and comparing, to becoming defensive — all of these actions can have the unintended effect of making grief worse for the person you want to support. I was particularly moved by psychotherapist and grief educator Megan Devine’s book on grief “It’s OK that you’re Not OK”. She discusses her own tragic experience of losing her partner and the lessons she learned from a society so terribly uncomfortable with grief and sadness. Her experiences compelled her to better educate and support others in a way that felt more accepting and compassionate. I draw much from Megan Devine in my own grief counseling work. Here, I am sharing my own “do” and “don’t” list when supporting friends and family in grief. I hope this also helps people experiencing grief and loss. Many of these responses are drawn from words and actions I have heard both professionally and personally – word for word. Let’s make this better!

Don’t:

  • Don’t tell the griever “You understand how they feel”. Everyone experiences grief differently and while you can share your own experiences at a certain point to help them feel less alone, make no assumptions.
  • Don’t give advice or use any statement that begins with “You just need”…(a walk, a party, a drink, medication), or “You should just…” (get out or take medication) or “Well at least…” (you’re still young, they died quickly, you got to be with them to the end…etc”. This minimizes pain and in a way blames the griever if they don’t take your advice or “see the bright side” or “get over it”.
  • Be gentle and open ended with respect to asking how someone is doing – and don’t ask if you don’t really want to know. Do not ask with assumption-based questions such as “You OK?” or “You good”? It’s insensitive, disrespectful and compromising to the griever. You might instead ask “How are you holding up today? I’ve been thinking about you”? or “How are you managing”?
  • Don’t take a refusal to speak or visit personally. Instead of being critical, be curious and compassionate. It’s not about you. Let them know it’s OK and that you will check back in if they like.
  • Ask questions — about the griever and their loved ones. Take an interest. They are likely processing some very difficult memories. Be curious. Don’t assume you know a particular history or story — and don’t relate it immediately back to you. Listen more and talk less. Witness pain and validate it. It will help friends feel “normal” when things are anything but.
  • Don’t assume it is best to “distract” a griever by talking about unrelated or “fun” or “superficial” topics. It again, compromises the griever. Ask them what feels best to them.
  • If you are feeling frustrated, don’t let them know with questions such as “how long is this going to go on already?” It’s not about you, but you may want to check in with yourself to see how comfortable YOU are with uncomfortable emotions. Many of us have a low tolerance for grief and sadness and want them to go away quickly — I mean like “now”. Grief is messy. It’s a journey. It takes time, transforms, and often never completely disappears. Indeed we may have these feelings about ourselves and dislike them. This just activates shame about not being ‘strong enough to handle it’.
  • Don’t avoid contact and then explain by saying “I figured you wanted space”or “I was waiting for you to reach out” or “I didn’t want to impose”. Grievers won’t want to seem burdensome or sick. Check in regularly, even if the feedback is lukewarm. Some people aren’t up to much explanation or conversation and that can change with patience and compassion. Checking in can be as simple as a little text or email that lets them know you are thinking about them and care about them.
  • Don’t say “Let me know if there is anything I can do”. They usually won’t. We are in a society that emphasizes individual over collective and a ‘get over it’ mentality. “Neediness” is seen as weak by many. Don’t offer anything you don’t mean.

Do:

  • Relax you expectations. As Devine rightly points out, grief is not a sickness to be fixed, and certainly not on your timeline.
  • Do respect the relationship the griever has with the loss they have experienced (be it a close or distant relative, an unborn child, a friend, a friend of a friend, a pet, a relationship, or a career, and so on).
  • Do offer very specific help: I would like to drop off dinner on this night or a few to help out, or offering to look after the kids on the weekend or pay for someone to come clean a home – or offer to do it yourself. Don’t wait to be asked for help. It’s too uncomfortable and grievers often don’t have the mental strength or energy to make requests.
  • Check in often – even if the feedback is not particularly rewarding — remember it is not about you.
  • Do read up about how to support a friend in grief — it’s an easy google search. A friend of a friend in grief told her she had prepared for their first visit after a major loss by making sure she knew what to do and say. My friend was so touched by just a little extra effort, that she felt understood, respected, and it even further bonded their friendship.
  • Do reach out and offer words of care and concern even if you don’t know the person particularly well. You never know what kind of support system people have in place.
  • Do listen well and respond with caring affirmations and validation, and open ended, non-judgmental questions.
  • Do let grievers know if you are lost for words. It’s OK to not know exactly what is best to say. Being transparent can at least let them know you are thinking about them.

If you can relate to any of this and want to share some of your own experiences, or additions to my lists, please get in touch through my contact page www.ontariotherapist.com/