Comforting a Grieving Friend
You have just received a message or a phone call with a shaky voice on the other end of the line – and suddenly someone you care for is suddenly thrown into one of the most difficult
seasons of their lives: a season of grieving. With or without warning, this will be a challenging time. Note that while this article is geared towards comforting individuals who have lost a loved one, this is also applicable to other situations, e.g. the loss of a relationship, or a divorce.
For those who are grieving, the people around them can influence how well they come out of this season. As their inner circle, how we engage with them, what we say, whether we are
sensitive to their feelings, can have a major impact on the duration and intensity of the grieving process. Critically, good intention often is not enough. Sometimes in wanting to help them, we can end up making matters worse and complicating their grief. Therefore, it is important that we understand what is helpful and what is not.
The purpose of this article is to help you help your grieving loved one. We understand it can be incredibly frustrating to see them suffering. We want to help you better understand what they are going through and how to best support them.
Why do people grieve?
To start off, it is useful for us to know the end goal of grieving. There are many purposes, but
the two most important ones are for them to have closure in their relationship with the lost loved one and continue with their lives in a healthy and functional way. This is a natural and healthy process. Skipping the grieving process can be harmful in the long term.
Closure is a complicated process, but it is like sorting through a photo album. When we sort
through old, printed photo albums, they would be stored in these large folders. We would bring them out, and as we flip through them, waves of memories would come back. Some incredibly joyful, others associated with deep sorrow. In the same way, when someone we love passes, we sort through all our feelings, all our memories, all the experiences. In the end of both processes, we close the book, and begin to make new memories.
Closure cannot be calculated by some mathematical algorithm. It is not a matter of the head, but rather it is one of the heart. It is also a deeply personal process and cannot be forced or rushed. Emotions are not on any sort of schedule and grieving cannot be assigned a deadline. That is why the best we can do for our loved one is to support, not force, them.
Grieving is not to forget the pain – as years could go by and suddenly a wave of sadness just washes over, that is normal. Instead, it is to continue developing healthy relationships, be fruitful in the work we do, and to not be constantly be tormented by negative emotions. Ironically, for that to happen in the future, they must often endure negative
emotions first to achieve closure.
Another reason we grieve is because it is the natural reaction to losing someone or something we love. The thoughts and feelings of not being able to see them again, the joys of the time spent together, the regrets of things we may or may not have said and done can come like a tidal wave. For someone grieving, they may often think about the ‘what ifs’ and hypothetical situations. All these thoughts and feelings come bursting out, and a healthy part of grieving is feeling and experiencing these emotions.
Note that the purpose of grieving is helpful to us when we are helping them, but it may not be useful for them to know during the process. For example, the notion of moving on so they can function in a healthy way is useful for us to guide them; however, for someone grieving, holding on to the pain can feel like they are keeping the memory alive, and thus they would not want to move on yet.
What to do and what not to do:
Knowing that there are people we can turn to who will listen, love us, and care for us
unconditionally takes a huge mental burden off. In my own experience, having someone cry
with me was something that helped drastically. Simply letting them know that you are there –
whether they feel like talking or not – helps them share the burden. Shortly after receiving the news, many people will still be in shock. At this point, the most effective form of help is to simply let them know you are there. Helping a grieving person is like knocking on a door, you can only engage further if they let you in – we cannot force our way into others’ lives.
As this is written during the COVID-19 pandemic, we hear news of people passing daily. Despite this, we often cannot meet people face to face. While it is preferred, we do not have to meet people face to face to support them, as long as they are reminded that we are thinking of them. Loneliness and isolation set in very quickly, and so they may need reminders that we are present. A call or a text can be a huge help. However, we must also be sensitive and be respectful if they need space.
While we should never force them to open up, it is important to let them know that you are
there to listen if they want to talk about their loss. If they do choose to share, they may begin
talking about their lost loved one. As noted above, this is a healthy process, and so we should not stop them. They may repeat the same story again and again, which is also a normal process of grieving – similar to how we often need to read something again and again for it to make sense. Show genuine interest because sharing is part of their healing process.
If they engage first, talk about the person who passed away and do not steer away from the
subject if the deceased’s name comes up. And when it seems appropriate, ask sensitive
questions—without being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express their feelings. By simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?”, you are letting your loved one know that you are available to listen.
Being present does not mean giving advice. In fact, if we prioritize their wellbeing, we will only speak when we need to. Hearing advice when they are not ready can be extremely harmful, even if it is good advice at the wrong time. Therefore, if they do choose to share, make sure we ask them what they need, e.g. if they just want us to listen – which we need to make abundantly clear that it is perfectly fine – or if they want to hear our thoughts. Most often, they just want us to listen.
Furthermore, never judge or criticize them for what they say or think at the time. When a person is grieving, a lot of complicated emotions will come out – especially if they had a
complicated relationship with the individual. For many, questioning their values or blaming others is common in the face of severe trauma. There are no exact guidelines, but as a rule of thumb, it is best to have that conversation much later, once they have processed the loss and calmed down. On that note, do not force them to see the positives or move on faster. Saying things such as ‘You need to move on’, ‘This is part of God’s plan’, or ‘You should have done this or that’, or even ‘God loves them so much that He called them home’ may not be helpful. Especially right after the incident or during the funeral, let them take time to process the loss.
Another thing we can do is offer practical help, for example cooking for them, babysitting the kids, and doing groceries. Especially for individuals who have a lot of responsibilities e.g. young parents, this can be hugely helpful.
The grieving process can go on for extended periods of time. It will most certainly last beyond the funeral. The process may go on for months or years. Be sure to check in every now and then – especially in our culture, people often look good on the outside, but inside they are not. They may need extra support on special days such as anniversaries or birthdays.
When you feel they are ready, invite them to community gatherings. Ensure that the
community is receptive and not critical, as waves of sadness may still hit them even when
surrounded by friends and thus the circle of friends need to be prepared. A sense of belonging can be extremely helpful to their healing. If they seem ready, involving them in activities that help others can also help with their own healing process.
In summary, comforting someone who is grieving can seem like a scary process – and we will make mistakes. The key is to ask what they need while giving them the time and space to process their feelings. It is not an exact science, but an imperfect companion is far better than a perfect one who is absent. While it is not our responsibility or part to change them, what we can do is be the best friend we know how to be. In the end, loss and grief are inevitable, but we can choose to be a better society by knowing how to care for one another.