Comforting Others in Grief: Suggestions for Friends and Family
By Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. *
As a caring friend or family member, you may find yourself at a loss of what to do or say in the face of a loved one’s grief. During these times it is helpful to know that there is nothing that you can “do”or “say” that will make his or her pain go away. Rather than trying to fix the problem, you can make yourself available to your loved one in the following ways:
Your friend is likely to need additional support during the first year following his or her loss.Typically the bereaved person is inundated with phone calls and visits immediately after the death, followed by a period of “silence” from their community. You can help make your friend feel supported by continuing to make phone calls every now and then to check-in and say hello. You may also choose to write a note that includes a warm, caring sentiment to let your friend know that you are thinking of them. To ensure continued support, try putting reminders on your calendar.
Make a date.
In addition to checking-in over the phone or with a note, you may also want to set a date with your friend on a weekly or monthly basis. Ask your friend to join you for a walk or a meal. Low-stress activities are often the best, so avoid crowded or noisy spaces. For example, suggest watching a movie at home rather than going to the movies. Don’t take it personally if your friend rebuffs offers or doesn’t return every phone call. Keep trying.
When a person is grieving they may find it difficult to ask for the help that they need. This does not mean that they don’t need it!You can help support your friend by offering to do specific things. For example, volunteer to shop or do laundry, bring dinner, make phone calls, etc. Anticipate needs that may arise in the future like cleaning the gutters or changing the oil in the car. A close friend or family member might also offer to help go through papers or belongings of the deceased whenever the bereaved person is ready to do so. Listen well. A sympathetic ear is often the best support that you can offer as a caring friend or family member. Avoid giving unsolicited advice and steer clear of such phrases as “It’s God’s will” or “It’s for the best” unless your friend says this. Often, people work through grief and trauma by telling their story over and over. Frequently, those who are grieving really wish others would just listen. It’s your understanding – not usually your advice – that is most sorely needed.
Talk about the deceased.
A fear may exist that if you discuss the deceased it will make your friend feel sad. However, your friend is likely feeling sad and thinking about the deceased anyway. Talking about the deceased is not likely to make your friend feel sadder, although it may prompt tears. Many people say that it is comforting to know that other people are thinking of the person who died, too. Don’t be afraid to share funny or warm anecdotes that show how important to you or wonderfully special the deceased person was. An exception to this is cultures in which mentioning the dead is taboo or bad luck.
Your friend’s life and emotional landscape have changed enormously, possibly forever. You may wish that he or she would “move on” or “snap out of it.” However, you can’t speed the process of recovery. Let your friend heal at the pace that feels right for him or her. A worthwhile approach will be to accept the path that your friend chooses and avoid judgments.
*Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. has been a member of the HELP provider team since 2005. She possesses compassion and skill in helping children, adolescents, and adults address issues related to chronic illness, depression,anxiety, and substance abuse. Dr. Perper is trained in the techniques of child play therapy and has a special interest in aspects of grief, loss, and transition.
Dr. Perper serves as Adjunct Professor at Alliant International and teaches courses for the Certificate in Bereavement Studies at National University. She has earned respect and recognition in the community through volunteer commitments to San Diego Hospice, Jenna DruckFoundation, the San Diego LGBT Community Center, Surivors of SuicideLoss, and Parents of Murdered Children. Dr. Perper actively serves with the Continuing Education Committee for the San Diego Psychological Association, the San Diego Bereavement Consortium, and the Victim’s Assistance Coordinating Council.