One of the few certainties in life is the unfortunate pain of losing people we love. To care deeply means at some point, we will mourn. It’s the risk of being human. No matter how expected it may be, the death of someone close to us is a shock to the system. Like a physical injury, grief is acutely painful, and because we are empathetic, we feel proximal sorrow.
When a friend is grieving, our natural inclination is to offer comfort, but often we don’t know how. We don’t want to say the wrong thing or reopen the wound; we don’t want to make it worse. So we do nothing. But as anyone who has experienced grief will tell you, there is nothing you can do or say that can make it worse…except not saying or doing anything at all.
Here are six things you can do when you’re not sure what to do:
1 | Say anything
Say: I’m sorry, I’m here, I care that you’re hurting, I know how much she meant to you, I know you miss him. If you truly don’t know what to say, say exactly that: I don’t know what to say. Just say what’s in your heart. I guarantee your friend will not be upset with you for bringing up a painful subject. It’s likely the painful subject has been on her mind continuously. By acknowledging your friend’s grief, you are validating it.
2 | Give her a hug
There is something primal about wrapping your arms around someone’s saddened frame, like the corporeal transference of a healing spirit. It’s the most instinctual form of comfort, both to give and to receive. When emotions are raw and tears are fresh, a hug says what you aren’t able to articulate. Universal and restorative, nothing beats the emotive power of an embrace.
3 | When distance prevents an in-person exchange, call on the phone
There is something uniquely soothing about hearing a familiar voice. Don’t worry, your friend won’t keep you on the line for long, but she will be very grateful that you made the effort. A text is fine, and in certain circumstances preferable, like if your friend is at work or keeping erratic hours. A quick message lets her know she’s in your thoughts.
4 | Send a card
Putting your thoughts in writing gives you the space to say exactly what you feel without the hindrance of a quavering voice. Cards or notes can be read over and again, offering comfort in the form of a keepsake.
5 | Share meaningful memories
Ask your friend about her loved one, ask about his life, his work, what he meant to her. Ask about his death, even. If you commit to being a perceptive listener and can give your friend your undivided attention, she will be therapeutically engaged. Believing her loved one mattered to the world – that his life counted and he will be missed – will give her solace in her darkest hour. Join her in expressing the depth of her loss.
6 | Be there for your friend when life returns to normal
The Irish celebrate a loved one’s life and death by holding a wake where the family of the deceased remains at home in the presence of the body for days. To keep the family company, friends stop by bringing food, drink, music, stories, laughter, and support. The traditional condolence is not, I’m sorry for your loss, but rather, I am standing with you. They mean it quite literally, in the moment, and figuratively thereafter.
For a culture steeped in industrial widowhood, the Irish know full well that grief doesn’t subside when the funeral party ends. Your friend’s loss may dull over time and not pierce her heart so sharply, the thought of all she’s lost may not reduce her to tears every day, but she will carry it with her and won’t ever forget.
You will never regret reaching out, speaking your heart, and sharing a friend’s grief. When the roles are reversed, as they someday will be, and you receive the same outpouring, you will understand and cherish each thoughtful act sent with loving intention.