In times of grief and loss, it’s often the hardest time to know what to say to show sympathy or how to help someone who is grieving. What can you say that doesn’t feel inadequate or awkward?
That person you know, who may be someone you care for, is hurting, going through the grieving process, and feeling a loss so deeply that their heart feels like it’s breaking.
I’ve been in those shoes. My first loss, at age 13, was a beautiful woman who helped to take care of me — my great aunt. Another loss at age 19, of an aunt who succumbed to kidney failure while I was caring for her.
Then, my mother-in-law. My mother, my best friend. My father — I was his “little girl.” A dear friend who was like a brother to me. Two of my three brothers, just three months apart. Then there were my beloved pets over the years: Maia, Sarah, Bernhardt, Magellan, McGuyver, Kismet, and Harley.
What could anyone say to ease the pain of the grieving process? Nothing.
And then, there were those times when I was on the outside looking in, as friends and family mourn the loss their husband, son, mother, father, sibling, and family pets.
“I’m sorry and sad for your loss. My heart breaks for you. I wish I could take the pain away and fill that hole in your heart. My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
These are beautiful words and sentiments, which people appreciate, yet it often feels so inadequate as they come out of my mouth.
From my perspective, it’s not so much what I can say when someone dies, but what I can do. There are a few things that seem to help them grieve … because they also helped me.
Here’s how to help someone who is grieving and give them your condolences and support.
1. Hold space
What does that mean? For me, it means to listen, and allow them to talk — or not.
It means to come from a grounded place, so I can be steady as they lean on me, literally and figuratively. It means to allow their feelings to flow from grief to anger and back, without judgment, so they can face their emotions. It means knowing when they need a break to crawl in and be quiet.
It especially means knowing, deep within, that this is not about me.
By holding space, my intention is to help them feel safe to share the emotions as they ebb and flow, to know that I can be there for them in whatever way they need.
2. Show compassion
Everyone grieves in different ways and it takes whatever time it takes for them. To help someone who is grieving, we can show compassion for their grieving process.
There are some behaviors that seem to help, where their opposites can shut things down for the griever. Being supportive while not being a “fixer”. Allowing the feelings to flow naturally, and jump around if necessary, while not telling them how they should feel.
Asking what they feel like doing, without directing their activity. Recognizing the great loss, without minimizing it. Allowing them the time they need to grieve fully, without dictating how long that should take.
3. Remind them you care
In my experience with loss, I heard from people when it first happened, and then they go away — as if they don’t care. I think this is often how people react, myself included sometimes when they don’t think there is anything to do or say, so they do and say nothing.
I like sending cards or text messages, with thoughtful sentiments. This might be once a week for a month after the loss, so they are reminded that I’m here for them, for whatever they need. At the very least, they know I remember that they are in pain. I do care.
You might say something like, “I’m here for you. Sending my love and hugs to circle around you today and bring you comfort. I continue to hold you in my prayers for your comfort during this time of deep loss. Let me know when you’re ready for some company and I’ll be there.”
Dealing with grief is not easy for anyone. Every circumstance is different. It depends upon the relationship you have with the person who lost someone.
Figuring out how to help someoen who is grieving also depends on what you can do for them. There are always the offers to make meals, pick up groceries, and shuttle the kids. Freeing up the griever so s/he has time to grieve is a wonderful thing, if that’s what they need.
And sometimes, staying busy with their day-to-day life is just what they feel they need.
Honoring that is the best thing.