Post 91: How Do You Show Up for Someone After Their Loss? - Nine Gentle Suggestions
Updated: Aug 15
When it comes to knowing what to say or what to do with a friend or acquaintance who is deeply grieving loss, I would probably feel just as unsure as the next person.
In fact, I might be tempted to do what feels most comfortable or "safe" - keeping my head down so to speak, proceeding with checking off items on my daily To Do lists, and excusing myself with "I'm busy currently. I'll call her later."
For many of us, however, this line of thinking probably would not sit right with us. We might say, "I want to be there for my friend" or "I want to check in on this acquaintance. They're a good person."
And then our immediate thought might be, "Well, what can I say or do that'll be helpful? I don't want to inadvertently make them feel worse."
From years of experience as a palliative care physician (read Post 1: What Exactly Does a Palliative Care Specialist Do?), I know already that there are many different kinds of loss - loss of an identity, loss of the ability to work, loss of independence, loss of the ability to continue a beloved hobby, loss of friends and social life, loss of a role as someone's mother or father or husband or wife [read Post 35: Grieving Loss (and Change) That is About to Come - Six Coping Suggestions]. I know grief can occur after any type of loss and manifest as almost any emotion(s) and that no one emotion is the "right" emotion; all are human and valid.
I have seen how very appreciative people can be if you are just willing to sit with them and allow them to express their emotions, even if this includes crying.
Of course, the above situations occur when I am already in a room with someone who is grieving, when I am in a healthcare professional and patient/family member dynamic.
What can we do if we have the choice to approach - or avoid instead - a friend or acquaintance who is acutely grieving? It might help to first understand that there is no normal duration of grief. People eventually learn to live side by side with their grief and attempt to resume their regular routine (or venture new activities) when grief is no longer so overwhelming. There is no "right" way to grieve. Some find solace in sharing their feelings and some prefer privacy (read Post 77: "There is No Pill for Grief" - Two Types of Coping with Grief).
The following are a few suggestions on how one could "show up" for someone after their loss (I list resources below):
Things to say:
1. Consider saying a simple "I'm so sorry" rather than platitudes that many well-meaning people fall back on when they are struggling to find words in an attempt to comfort. "Everything happens for a reason," "Well, the bright side is...," and "At least..." are examples of Things Not to Say commonly suggested by people who are experiencing or have experienced profound grief.
If you are not sure if a phrase would sound like a trite platitude, add "...so stop feeling so sad" to the end of your words - "Everything happens for a reason...so stop feeling so sad" - to help you recognize if a particular phrase may be more hurtful or irritating than helpful (see Resource #3 below, from which I found this advice).
2. Consider asking, "How are you doing today?" or simply saying, "I've been thinking of you" or "I'm happy to see you" instead of "How are you?" Sometimes we say "How are you?" as a means of greeting, and sometimes we ask because we genuinely care to know. A grieving person may be feeling a myriad of emotions during this period, and this everyday question may actually turn out to be a difficult question to answer.
3. Consider checking in at random times mainly to say, "I just wanted to let you know that I'm thinking of you." This checking in could be via text, phone call, email, card, postcard...
4. Some may greatly appreciate shared memories of the loved one they lost. "I was at the Olive Garden last week, and I realized the last time I'd been there was with Walt. Remember the face he made when he realized the pizza he bit into was actually cake?"
5. If you say something you realize could be inadvertently hurtful to someone who just suffered big loss, consider owning up to it rather than pretending your words were acceptable. This may include when you try to relate to someone by sharing a story of your own loss, though they may not have the bandwidth to empathize with your loss when they are acutely grieving their own. "I'm sorry I just started talking about me. You don't need to hear about more sadness right now" or "I'm sorry I just said that. It was insensitive of me."
Things to do:
1. Ask if helping with a particular task would be helpful - that is, ask for permission - before actually initiating that task. "I'm getting items for lunch. Would it be helpful if I brought over some food or do you have enough already?" Even tasks that may seem inherently helpful to you, such as cleaning someone's house or doing their laundry, may trigger hesitancy in someone who is deeply grieving and potentially not ready to let go of certain items around the house last used by their loved one or last worn by their loved one.
2. Volunteer to help with specific tasks rather than making a blanket remark such as "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Perhaps ask, "Can I come by to walk the dogs next week so you can sleep in?" or "Could I get you some groceries while I'm at the store?"
3. Consider helping someone with a bit of distraction from, or a pause on, their grieving by offering to hang out with them. "Do you want to go to the movies?" or "How would you feel about my coming over and us playing Rummikub?"
4. Consider dropping off small presents, gift cards, gift baskets, and/or care packages. These presents can range from practical, such as grocery delivery gift cards, to entertaining, such as goggles that make everything look upside down, to luxurious, such as special hand lotion.
It is sometimes much harder to "show up" for non-family members who are grieving because we have the option to avoid and not approach them. We have the option to stay in our confined comfort zones.
Even if it is uncomfortable to "show up" for someone, I hope the suggestions above make it a little less awkward to do what we often feel is "the right thing." And perhaps we will develop a closer connection to a fellow human being in the process.
1. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler (Random House, 2018)
Appendices 1 and 2 include short lists of things to "absolutely never say" and things to "give...a go" when attempting to support someone going through truly tough times, all of which could be applicable to those who are grieving. Note, the author's voice can sound unforgiving for those who say things she believes should never be said.
2. Helping Through Heartache: An Easy Guide to Supporting Anyone Who Is Grieving by Sheila Hoover (Sheila Hoover, 2021)
This is a gentle, highly practical, and concise book explaining things to say or not say and things to do or not do for the reader who wants to be supportive (and may feel unsure on exactly how) for someone who is grieving loss. It is a quick read with short paragraphs and cartoons to convey main ideas. It is my favorite resource on this topic.
3. How to Carry What Can't Be Fixed: A Journal for Grief by Megan Devine (Sounds True, 2021)
This workbook for those who are acutely grieving can be read by those who are trying to understand what a profoundly grieving person may be experiencing. Certain pages made me pause and reflect on perspectives that would not have occurred to me as an outsider to deep grieving. Page 145 is the reference for the above advice on platitudes.
(Many other books about grief, including memoirs written by those who have lived with profound grief, are good reads and informative, however I primarily listed the above books as resources for "lists" of actionable things to say/not say and things to do/not do.)