How to offer support to a grieving friend

It’s hard to know the right thing to say to someone who has recently experienced a loss, but just being there for them can make a world of difference. Counsellor Fiona Caine offers guidance to a woman who is not sure what to say to her grieving friend.

The problem
“My friend has been through the most terrible time lately and I just don’t know what to say to her. Her dad died last August and then, three weeks later, her mum died too. Both of her two sons have emigrated – one some time ago but the other, just before her dad died, so neither were there for their grandparent’s funeral.

“As if that weren’t enough, her husband – who was several years older than her – has just died of the coronavirus, and she couldn’t even be with him at the end.

“She has one sister who she gets on well with, but who has serious health problems, so cannot do very much. Other than that, she has no family to help her. I can’t believe one person can go through so much.

“I just don’t know what to say that will be enough, and I don’t know what to do to help her. She has strong religious beliefs – which I don’t share – but she was saying she’s losing faith at the moment.”

Fiona Caine says:
“Your friend certainly is going through it, and it’s not really surprising her faith is being tested.

“Don’t succumb to the temptation of trying to do something that’s not you, though. People often say their ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with the bereaved person but, if your friend will know praying isn’t your thing, it will sound hollow.

“Do talk about the pain she’s experiencing – so many people say things like ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I’m thinking of you’ without acknowledging how painful it is. Sometimes we need to have validation that the pain we feel isn’t abnormal, and that we’re not weird or peculiar for feeling so terrible.

“Tell her it’s awful; tell her you can’t imagine how hard it must be for her. Don’t tell her she’s ‘brave’ or that she’s doing so well, because she may be putting on a front when what she really needs to do is talk. Encourage her to do so by sharing stories and anecdotes, particularly about her husband, but perhaps about her parents, too – if you knew them.

“A lot of people will say, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help, just ask;’ – but a bereaved person often won’t know what to ask for. Offer something positive instead, like some home-made soup or a cake.

“The other important thing is to keep in touch – don’t say, ‘Ring me if you need me’ – ring her.

“Quite often, people who are bereaved think they’re becoming a burden to their friends and don’t like to make a call for help when they need it – so call her.

“If she doesn’t want to talk, she’ll almost certainly say so. There are points when it’s all too much and you don’t want to see, hear or talk to anyone. But if you’re thinking about her, call her and encourage her to share stories and positive anecdotes about her husband.

“As we’re coming out of lockdown and beginning to be able to see one another again, it may become easier to be closer to her. If you’re in a position to, perhaps you could invite her to come and stay for a while – if the rules in your area and family state this is safe, although you still have to keep distant.

“If you’re not, then at least you can meet up – as soon as she is out of strict quarantine, make a point of going to see her. Whilst you may not share her religious beliefs, this doesn’t matter; the most important thing is that she knows you care and are there for her if she needs you.”

What would you say to a grieving friend? Has someone said something to you while dealing with a loss that really helped?

– With PA

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