You’ve just learned that your friend has lost their spouse, child, parent, sibling - and you’re devastated for them. Your first impulse is to call, or visit, right away so you can tell them...What? What can you possibly say at a time like this?
In fact, you feel like the words running around inside your head sound awkward, insensitive, and even a little detached. And while you struggle with the right words - time is passing and your sense of urgency to show up for your friend is growing along with your anxiety.
This is tricky to navigate for the closest family and friends, or any loving bystander. The struggle to find comforting words is real. We want them to know we love them and even loved the person they are now facing a life without.
We just want to help.
So what can you say? Try these suggestions:
Say the name of the person they’ve lost. “I miss Mike, Bobby, Sue or Sally.”
Grievers report that within days of their loved one's death - people around them stop referring to them by their name.
Say, “His life mattered and I will always remember when he…”
Gradually grievers stop hearing the funny stories and sweet memories of their loved one - and it becomes another loss to endure. You can share stories, and what they meant to your life. Grievers want to know how their loved one impacted the lives of others - to see the footprints they’ve left behind, and the influence they had on the world.
Say, “I can only imagine how you are feeling.”
This acknowledges a terrible truth and one that you can only imagine. Be ready to hear about how their loss is affecting them. Hold back from the impulse to compare their pain to your own story of loss. Their pain is different than your pain - it’s their own unique fingerprint of grief. In time, they may invite you to share your own story, but for now -- let your grieving friend own the mic.
Say, “It’s ok to feel whatever you’re feeling,” and “I am sorry for your suffering.”
I hear from many grievers that this is a comforting way to be approached after a loss. By acknowledging the suffering your friend is experiencing, you’re sharing in their loss. You’re validating their deep sadness. Being present for them, allowing them to let it all come, however they’re experiencing it, is a great gift.
Your grieving friend will be feeling a lot of different things, at different times, simultaneously and in no particular order. Because grieving is hard and confusing work, with the feelings coming in surprising waves and blasts. It can come over the course of an hour, a moment or a day. Or the feelings can seem like a permanent, pain filled fixture in their lives.
The 5 stages of grief include denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance, but these stages don’t come in tidy, progressive steps. The griever may be overwhelmed with sadness one minute and overcome with anger the next. Whatever they are feeling - they need validation and a safe place to be.
Say, “You mean so much to me.”
This has been swirling inside your head ever since you heard their terrible news -- how much you care about your dear friend, and how painful it is to see them in so much pain. So tell them that they matter to you, that you love them and will be there for them. Anchor them with your love and remind them there is a whole community of people who care about them. These connections of love will make all the difference in light of their loss.
Say, “I want to help.”
There is a world of difference between saying this and saying “Let me know if there is anything I can do - anything at all.” The problem with the later is, no matter how heartfelt the offer, it’s a tricky thing for someone in grief to know what they want or need at any given moment - let alone looking around at the practical parts of their life. Everything needs to be done, and nothing needs to be done all at the same time.
Your willingness to just show up, watch and help with mundane or monumental tasks will make a huge difference but offer only what you’re truly ready to give and follow through.
And sometimes, Silence.
The sad truth is, when you’re watching someone you love in the midst of grief, there really are no words that can bring total relief from the pain of loss.
Show up, bring your loving heart and sit in silence. Listen willingly for as long as they need your presence. Be ready to listen more than you speak. Join a support group to help those you love while they are healing from loss. Never underestimate the power of a loving companion for a grieving soul.