How to Be Supportive to Friends Experiencing Loss
A "support" crash course to guide you through difficult times
(Editor’s note: This essay is the latest in a series from author and speaker Ken Druck, based on work in his book Courageous Aging, which is about how all people can make peace with, and find joy in, every stage of life.)
Loss is an inescapable part of life. Whether we’ve lost someone to death, or are going through a living loss such as divorce, retirement, a life-threatening illness, a debilitating injury or a life-altering condition like dementia or addiction, support can make all the difference in helping us summon the strength, faith and courage to fight our way back into life.
Although we may want to reach out and lend a hand of support to our friends, family members and colleagues who are grieving, we’re not always sure of how. Despite our best intentions, most of us could benefit from an advanced course on “Support.” As someone who was worked with beareaved individuals, families and communities for 35 years, I believe that being there for someone in their time of need is one of the most caring, courageous and sacred things we can do.
Let this list of “Dos and Don’ts” guide you to say and do the kinds of things that have proven genuinely helpful to those who are grieving the loss of a family member, friend or colleague:
- Express your condolences. A simple, sincere “I’m so sorry for your loss,” a soft hand on a shoulder or a caring hug are usually perfect.
- Be present. Stay in touch even when others begin to disappear.
- Show you genuinely care through kind words and actions. It’s OK to also show that you care with your tears of sorrow.
- Be a safe harbor for others to express their feelings. Allow them to grieve without fear of being judged, analyzed, fixed, cured, saved or healed.
- Use your listening skills. Listen patiently, and ask open-ended questions to see how they’re doing, what they need and/or how you can be helpful.
- Give them multiple options for what you could do to help. By doing so, they’ll know you’re serious. Listen intently, and do what they ask.
- Give grieving individuals every opportunity to talk about those who have passed. If given the chance, you can also tell stories acknowledging the lives of the people they lost — the special qualities they possessed and their loving relationship with those they left behind.
- When they bring up the loss, respond in a way that shows them you were listening, and that you genuinely care.
- Ask their preferences. Ask them how they would like your support on special dates such as birthdays, “angel-versaries” (days of their passing) or holidays.
- Show genuine concern, kindness, understanding, patience, empathy and compassion. This is a time to put your ego on the shelf and be of service to others.
- Stay humble, flexible, relaxed and at ease when you’re with those who are grieving.
- Assist them in getting the support they need. This may include professional help from grief counselors or coaches — or even psychiatrists, if necessary. Assure them it’s not only OK, it’s smart.
- Encourage them to ease back in. In the case of grieving colleagues, encourage them to ease their way back into work a few hours at a time until they can handle longer stretches of sustained activity. (Also, tell them that taking a leave of absence is OK and may be necessary. Most companies have bereavement policies that allow time off, and many employers will make special arrangements when asked.) When they are back, support them to set up a “back-up” or “buddy” system in case they have a meltdown or need to step back and take a break.
- Invite them (without the least bit of pressure) to join you for lunch coffee, or a walk.
And now, DON’T:
- Don’t assume you know how they feel or what they want.
- Don’t put a psychological, religious or spiritual spin on their losses.
- Don’t use clichés — for example, “The glass is half-full.” Just be positive and supportive.
- Refrain from anything that might be interpreted as a “Hurry up.” Don’t tell them, “You’ll get over it,” “Time heals all wounds” or “In time, you will have closure” or any similar types of advice.
- Don’t give unsolicited advice or play “shrink” with them.
- Don’t compare your loss to theirs.
- Don’t suggest a quick fix to take away the pain.
- Don’t take it personally if they’re not responding to you in the way you’d hoped. Remember, it’s not about you!
- Don’t be insensitive. Don’t allow your own feelings of helplessness, impatience or intolerance of their continuing sorrow to cause you to say something insensitive.
- Don’t ask how they’re doing or pose any other casual question. Tell them they (and their families) continue to be in your thoughts and prayers.
- Don’t control the conversation. Let them take the lead on what they wish to talk about; and ask respectful, open-ended questions to draw them out.
- Don’t avoid, gloss over, act cute, change the subject or pretend that nothing has happened — or if you do, that nothing was said.
- Don’t smother them with too much caregiving attention.
- Don’t ignore your own triggers. Don’t hide, deny, repress, avoid, displace, dumb down or “medicate” the feelings of sorrow, anger, or guilt that may have been triggered by their losses.
- Don’t make executive decisions about what they need without consulting them. Ask them what they would like to have happen.
To find out more about Dr. Ken Druck’s Compassionate Workplace programs, Family Council Meetings, articles on grief and bereavement coaching, please go to kendruck.com.