Helping a Friend
A friend has experienced the death of someone loved. You want to help, but you are not sure how to go about it. There is much that you can do to help. Simple things. The importance of such help can hardly be overstated. Unresolved grief can be a life-threatening condition, and your support may make a vital difference in the mourner's eventual recovery.
Perhaps you do not feel qualified to help. You may feel uncomfortable and awkward. Such feelings are normal - don't let them keep you away. If you really care for your sorrowing friend or relative, if you can enter a little into his or her grief, you are qualified to help. Help a friend in grief:
- Get in touch. Call. Speak either to the mourner or to someone close and ask when you can visit and how you might help. Even if much time has passed, it's never too late to express your concern.
- Say little on an early visit. In the initial period (before burial), your brief embrace, your press of the hand, your few words of affection and feeling may be all that is needed.
- Avoid clichés and easy answers. Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a grieving friend. Clichés are trite comments often intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions to difficult realities. "He is out of pain," "Time heals all wounds," "You're holding up so well," and "Aren't you lucky that ..." are not likely to help. A simple "I'm sorry" is better.
- Be yourself. Show your natural concern and sorrow in your own way and in your own words.
- Keep in touch. Be available. Be there. A close friend or relative might be needed from the beginning. Later, when close family may be less available, any visit and phone call can be very helpful.
- Attend to practical matters. Find out if you are needed to answer the phone, prepare meals, clean the house, care for the children, etc. This kind of help lifts burdens and creates a bond. It might be needed well beyond the initial period, especially for the widowed.
- Encourage others to visit or help. Usually one visit will overcome a friend's discomfort and allow him or her to contribute further support. Maybe even schedule some visitors, so everyone does not come at once in the beginning and does not come later.
- Accept silence. If the mourner doesn't talk, don't force conversation. Silence is better than aimless chatter. Let them lead.
- Listen with your heart. When suffering spills into words, do the one thing the bereaved needs above all else: listen. Is she emotional? Accept that. Does he cry? Accept that too. Is she angry at God? God will manage without your defending him. Telling the same story about the death over and over again? Listen attentively each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend's healing process. Accept whatever feelings are expressed. Do not rebuke.
- Do not probe for details about the death. If the survivor offers information, listen with understanding.
- Comfort children in the family. Do not assume that a seemingly calm child is not sorrowing. Be a friend to whom feelings can be confided and with whom tears can be shed. In most cases, children should not be shielded from the grieving of others.
- Avoid talking trivia around the recently bereaved. Prolonged discussion of sports, weather or the stock market, for example, is resented, even if done purposely to distract the mourner.
- Allow the "working through" of grief. Do not whisk away clothing or hide pictures. Do not criticize seemingly morbid behavior. Young people may repeatedly visit the site of the fatal accident. A widow may sleep with her husband's pajamas as a pillow. A young child may wear his dead sibling's clothing.
- Write a letter. A sympathy card is a poor substitute for your own expression. If you take time to write of your love for and memories of the one who died, your letter might be read many times and cherished, possibly into the next generation. Use the name of the person who has died either in your personal note or when you talk to your friend. Hearing that name can be comforting, and it confirms that you have not forgotten this important person.
- Encourage the postponement of major decisions. Whatever can wait should wait until after the period of intense grief.
- In time, gently draw the mourner into quiet outside activity. He may lack the initiative to go out on his own.
- When the mourner returns to social activity, treat him or her as a normal person. Avoid pity-it destroys self-respect. Simple understanding is enough. Acknowledge the loss, the change in the mourner's life, but don't dwell on it.
- Be aware of holidays and anniversaries. Your friend may have a difficult time during these special occasions. These events emphasize the absence of the person who has died. See Grief and the Holidays for more information.
- Be aware of needed progress through grief. If the mourner seems unable to resolve anger or guilt, for example, you might suggest a consultation with a clergyman or other trained counselor.
- Understand the importance of the loss. Remember the death of someone loved is shattering. As a result of this death, your friend's life is under reconstruction. Consider significance of the loss, be gentle and be compassionate in all of your helping efforts.
A final thought: Helping must be more than following a few rules. Especially if the bereavement is devastating and you are close to the bereaved, you may have to give more time, more care, more of yourself than you imagined. Perceive special needs of your friend and creatively attempt to meet those needs. At least, know the satisfaction of being truly and deeply helpful.
Amy Hillyard Jensen
Dr. Alan D. Wolfedt