How to Comfort Those Who Are Grieving

When death reaches out and touches the lives of your friends or family members, it is natural and normal to feel overwhelmed and helpless.  Everyone wants to say and do the right thing but, in the midst of personally grieving, it is difficult to determine how to react.  Part of this confusion and fear comes from lacking personal experiences with death and grief.

It is helpful for you to understand that grief is the natural, normal, but necessary response to loss.  Grief is a physical, social, emotional and spiritual reaction.  It may cause a variety of reactions including irritability, inability to sleep or wanting to sleep all the time. Grief affects the appetite; some people feel hungry all the time or may not feel hungry at all.  It is normal to experience feelings of anxiousness, people may say that they feel like their heart is racing or they can’t catch their breath, some people find it difficult to breathe and feel hollow inside.  It is difficult for grieving individuals to concentrate on things.  Grieving people feel helpless, angry and frightened; remember to be patient with them. Grief takes time.

Everyone grieves differently because everyone is different.  There are many variables that impact grief: relationship to the person who died, age of the person who died and the age of the survivor and the circumstances of the death.  These are just a few variables that will add to the mix of feelings and experiences of grief.  People who travel the journey of grief do not have to do it alone. You can help.

What I Need to Know So I Can Help

It is important not to confuse empathy with sympathy.  Empathy is the ability to perceive another person’s feelings and experiences and reflect those perceptions back to them.  Empathy implies an acceptance of feelings and experiences without judgment.  Sympathy on the other hand, is non-supportive and non-productive because you allow your own feelings to be projected, you identify with the situation, not the person.  Be honest and genuine in your attempts to help others. When talking with the bereaved, ask questions that will allow them to be more realistic.

It is important that you never give advice and don’t try to push the bereaved into doing what you think is best for them.  It is human nature to want to say and do the right thing, people have inborn instincts that make them want to fix things.  Grief is something that cannot be fixed.

In an attempt to provide support, people often find themselves struggling for words and calling upon clichés that are meant to be comforting, instead, these clichés can cause anger and additional pain.  Clichés and platitudes are not helpful; they are the very last thing a grieving person wants to hear.  To say that it is “God’s Will” doesn’t help even if that is really how you feel.  This world is imperfect and things happen that are out of everyone’s control.  Statements like, “God needed him or her in heaven,” or “God does not give you more than you can handle,” are statements that assume that you know God’s Will, no one does.

It is much more helpful to be honest.  After all, there are some things in life that no one will ever understand.   So say, “I don’t understand this, but I am here for you,” or “You don’t have to go through this alone, I’ll be with you.” You might even say that the particular situation or death is difficult for you to understand, too. To say that you “know how they feel” only adds insult to injury. In all honesty, you can never truly know what a grieving person is feeling.

How I Can Help someone who is Grieving:

  • Acknowledge the loss – be open about your feelings.
  • Use the name of the person who has died whenever talking about them.
  • Do not be judgmental.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Don’t minimize the loss.
  • Listen – When you listen, you receive information; when you hear, you receive emotion.
  • Be patient, grief takes time – Don’t impose your time constraints on the grieving individual.  Everyone grieves in their own time.
  • Never use should or ought statements – Grieving people have a way of accepting guilt easily because they are trying to gain control over the situation and taking responsibility for what happened helps them do that, so don’t add to their feelings of guilt.
  • Remember important days – anniversaries, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s or Father’s Day, any holidays the family celebrated; special days punctuate the death and call to memory rituals and celebrations that will forever be changed.
  • Be willing to hear their story over and over – People who are willing to hear the bereaved talk about their loved one over and over again come few and far between.  The bereaved have a real need to talk about that person.  Very often, they are trying to make what happened seem real to them.
  • Let the next-of-kin dispose of belongings when they are ready – you may think you are helping by disposing of the belongings for someone, but you really aren’t.  Doing this exercise is therapeutic for the next-of-kin.  It enables them to build memories and share stories, so just be ready to help when they are ready.
  • Share your favorite memories of their loved one with them – a person is never lost if people have memories of the deceased.  You can add to the memory bank of the bereaved by sharing stories, photos or other memorabilia.
  • Be very specific when you offer to help – a grieving person often does not know what they need, so your comment to call if they need anything is hitting deaf ears.  Ask if you can watch the kids for a few hours or see if they want to go to a movie.  You might ask if they need anything from the grocery store or if they can help you with thank you notes.
  • Help coordinate a memorial fund, walk, library or scholarship to honor the deceased.
  • Take a meal to the house six months after the funeral and provide a listening ear.
  • Be present – you are what counts, not your words or deeds.