What to Do When A Friend is Grieving


The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing. . . not healing, not curing. . . that is a friend who cares.” ~ Henri Nouwen

A number of years ago, I heard a touching story of a little boy whose mother observed him on the neighbor’s porch sitting with the man whose wife had recently died. The boy and the man were sitting together rocking on the porch swing. After a time, the boy climbed down and came home. The mother asked the boy what he and the neighbor talked about and the little boy said, “Oh nothing. I just helped him cry.” Then he scampered off to play.

Before children learn differently, they have a wonderful ability to be fully present to every moment. And even from infancy, children have empathy. Before they learn to hide or tamp down emotions, children simply experience them.

Grief is front and center on the news lately with the devastation of hurricane Sandy. People have lost homes, cars, everything they own, and most tragically, family and friends. The intensity of the emotions that follow grief can sometimes be overwhelming – both for the person who mourns and for those they’re connected to.

 When you have a family member or friend who is grieving, it can be very hard to know what to do or what say. Here are some of the things I learned:

Be present. There isn’t anything you can do or say to take away the pain, or to make it go away faster. However, you can ensure that those you love don’t grieve alone. Your unhurried, sincere presence will allow the grieving person to speak when they need to, or have company to endure the painful silence when words are inadequate.

Stay present even when you are uncomfortable, especially in the silence. When they begin to talk about their loss don’t change the subject; don’t turn the conversation to a loss that you’ve had, and please don’t say anything dumb or hurtful (if you’re unsure whether it is dumb or hurtful, simply don’t say it).

Offer help. Be specific and sincere. Don’t say, “call if you need anything,” but think of something useful and offer it.  Offer to do shopping or chores for them, fix a nutritious meal, or babysit.  Invite the grieving person out for coffee. Invite them to join you for the holidays. Be sensitive. If coming to dinner is too much, ask if they could come just for dessert, or if you could bring something to them.

Keep reaching out. If all of your offers are rejected, gently continue to reach out. Don’t be a pest, but don’t be put off by the rejection. Grieving takes a very long time and most friends will go on with their own lives after only a few days or weeks.  Remember how hard it is for them still; knowing that someone is thinking of them can be a source of comfort. The grieving person may need a great deal of time alone, but watch for signs of deep depression or desolation that may come from too much aloneness. The key is being observant, gentle, sensitive, sincere and consistent with your interest and desire for connection.

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