Losing a loved one, be they family or friend, is a hellacious experience. Your brain is foggy with grief, and at the same time there are veritable mountains of truly important decisions to be made. Not an ideal combination. Having a support system to rely on — be it friends bearing casseroles or a trusted clergy member offering sage advice — is critical for people dealing with death. The problem is, acting as that support system can be more difficult than people realize. It’s easy to say the wrong thing or even create more stress.
Kristin Meekhof, author of “A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years,” and Meg Kelleher, licensed clinical social worker at the Center for Grief Recovery in Chicago, weigh in with their expert advice.
In her book, Meekhof quotes author Joyce Carol Oates who, after her husband died, wanted a T-shirt that read, “Yes, my husband died. Yes, I am very sad. Yes, you are kind to offer condolences. Now can we change the subject?”
There’s a fine line to walk between respecting someone’s boundaries and treating them like they’re blown glass — Meekhoff says she longed for normal conversation in which nobody was expecting her to burst into tears after every sentence.
That being said, after the initial flood of condolences, many grieving people find themselves without much support, according to Kelleher.
“Past the first few months, people stop reaching out,” she says. “It’s important to be there once the loss really starts to sink in and that’s the time people say, ‘I really could use hearing from someone.’”
It doesn’t have to be a somber call full of awkward silences, Kelleher says. Just let the grieving person know you’re there for them past the three- or six-month mark.
“Don’t just assume they’re fine,” she warns — but don’t just assume they’re falling apart either. “Just show you’re willing to face the process and ask, ‘How are you really feeling?’”
On Offering to Help
One of the least helpful things people often say to someone who is grieving is, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” Being in a fog of emotional pain renders most people essentially incapable of making plans or detailing exactly what they need help with.
“Ask other people to help you, even with seemingly easy things like opening a pile of neglected mail or compiling a list of people who need to be sent thank you notes,” Meekhoff writes.
She also suggests making specific offers, not just saying, “I’ll bring you over a casserole.” Maybe it’s once a week, maybe it’s once a month. But having that specific day blocked off where a meal doesn’t need to be made can be a huge relief.
Dropping off a care package of essentials like toilet paper, coffee and paper towels can also be a big help, Meekhoff says. “It’s easy to forget about them until you run out,” she writes.
Kelleher suggests filling in for activities that the deceased may have taken care of, such as shoveling the driveway or walking the dog.
“After a loss, people frequently have trouble feeling motivated,” Kelleher says. “Be aware of some of the things they might need but not have the energy to take care of.”
Making a casserole or helping out with housework may not lessen a person’s grief, but it does relieve their stress, which can be equally valuable in the early stages after a loss.
On Letting People Grieve
Out of fear they might say the wrong thing or upset someone even more, many people avoid addressing a loss entirely or offer up a generic response, Kelleher says,
“Bringing up a loss will help grieving people,” she says. “It tells them it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling.”
Similarly, Meekhoff cautions against saying things like, “Be strong” and “The worst feelings will pass.” These phrases not only seem trite, but can also come off as insincere.
Additionally, don’t try to relate to someone else’s grief.
“Every loss is different,” Kelleher says. “Just because you’ve had a certain kind of loss doesn’t mean someone will respond in the same way.” So skip the “I know how you’re feeling,” and be honest about not knowing exactly what they’re going through but being there for them nonetheless. You don’t have to perfectly empathize to give support.
On Putting Your Foot in Your Mouth
People are uncomfortable around grief and grieving people. It’s personal and intimate and difficult to know what to say.
“Sometimes, people say really dumb things — like, really inappropriate things,” Meekhoff says.
Classic examples of things people grieving never want to hear include: “[The deceased is] in a better place now” and “At least they’re no longer in pain.”
While the dearly departed might be thoroughly enjoying the afterlife, the widow or child or best friend is essentially going through hell and is in excruciating emotional pain. And as far as “a better place” goes, the only place the bereaved want their loved one to be is back with them.
Kelleher says the best way to recover if you say the exact wrong thing is to be honest.
“Say, ‘I don’t know what you’re feeling and it’s hard to know what to say. I’m sorry if my words don’t help or feel ineffectual because I want to help, but I’m not sure how,’” Kelleher says.
It’s not necessarily about saying the perfect thing, but making yourself available and not shrinking away from someone else’s pain.
“People remember when things feel insincere, but they also remember those who were really willing to spend time with them,” Kelleher says.
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