How to Support Your Friend When She’s Grieving

I’m in the middle of a pretty difficult year. Job changes, school setbacks, and health issues have turned me into a tense, coiled ball of stress and frustration.

Perhaps the most crippling hurdle I’ve tried (and perhaps failed) to overcome was the loss of a loved one I wasn’t ready to part with just yet. I think we’re told over and over again how much it hurts to lose someone you love, but no amount of warning ever really prepares us for that pain.

Sometimes the words of a well meaning friend would leave me feeling conflicted.

I feel acutely lucky to have been surrounded by friends and family who were all quick to offer love, support, and condolences. Sometimes, though, the words of a well-meaning friend would leave me feeling conflicted. I know they were trying to help, but why did I suddenly feel worse?

Navigating my own grief has made me stronger, and it’s an experience I hope has transformed me into a better and more empathetic person and friend.

When someone you love loses someone they love, it’s easy to feel lost about how to help. Everyone grieves differently and uniquely, so I hesitate to put together an end-all, be-all list of tips, but I do have a few simple ideas about how to be supportive of a grieving friend without intruding on their space or their pain.

Don’t: Say “call me if you need anything.”

I’m guilty of using this phrase way too often. No matter how good your intentions, it’s unlikely your grieving friend will even know what she needs, let alone be in a place to effectively delegate out tasks to helpful loved ones.

Instead, try to come up with active ways you can help. Offer to come walk their dog or water their plants. Drop off a few meals (in disposable containers they won’t need to wash). Volunteer your babysitting services. Again, everyone grieves differently so do your best to anticipate their individual needs.

Do: Keep in contact.

It’s really hard to know what to say to a person who’s grieving, so the easiest thing is often to say nothing at all. I’ll never forget how loved I felt when my friend sent me a text reading “I hope you’re OK. I’m going to call you in an hour, and if you don’t feel like talking please don’t pick up. Just want you to know I’m here.”

Don’t: Tell them how to feel or what to do.

If you have advice you think may be helpful, consider starting with: “Have you thought about…” or “Maybe you could try…” or “You might…” Telling a person what to do assumes they’re grieving the way you grieve. Saying something along the lines of “You will feel better if you do this…” is not really all that helpful. How do you know that’s true?

Additionally, phrases like, “It will get better” or “It could be worse” or “Everything happens for a reason,” risk invalidating your friend’s pain by making her feel like she should feel better when she doesn’t. Grieving people need to be allowed to be upset. 

Do: Acknowledge their loss.

Sometimes the best thing you can say is “I know things are not OK right now, but I’m here.” Acknowledge and remember your friend’s loved one and be sensitive on important days. Send a text or a card just to let them know you are thinking of them.

The bottom line: Reach out with love and compassion and never assume you know what they’re feeling.

Do these things even after they seem like they’re doing OK. Try to sense if they want you closer or need a little space. And if you can’t sense it, it is definitely 100% OK to ask.

It can offer a shred of hopeful sweetness to cut through the bitterness of loss.

Too often people treat those grieving like children—too afraid to talk about their loss but also too hesitant to talk about “normal things.” When this happens, a grieving person can be left feeling isolated and alone in a time they need their friends the most.

Fearlessly supporting your friend won’t make her pain go away, but it can help her navigate what would otherwise be an impossible journey. It can offer a shred of hopeful sweetness to cut through the bitterness of loss.

And when we ourselves are grieving, that’s all we can really ask for.

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