Familiar phrases like "I'm sorry for your loss" and "Sending my condolences" feel inadequate in the face of a loved one's loss. But there's a reason people turn to cliches: Knowing what to say to someone who's grieving, along with what support to offer (and how to do so), is hard.
It's no surprise that being there for loved ones matters, though.
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Support is helpful for people going through something difficult, Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Being left isolated and alone is not," Dr. Saltz adds. "It is important to extend yourself to try to be supportive."
Here's how to support someone when they're dealing with grief.
People Experience Grief for Many Reasons
Before going further, a quick definition of grief: This emotion is a normal response to a loss — and that can take many forms, from the death of a loved one to the end of a relationship to a scary health diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While you may find yourself consoling someone grieving a death, your loved ones may also grieve other losses, and benefit from your support.
1. Show Up, Even if It’s Uncomfortable
Along with worries about saying the wrong thing, people may hesitate to engage with the bereaved because of discomfort with loss and death, Shawna Newman, MD, psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Grief is heavy, even when it's not your own — it can bring up a sense of mortality along with fears of losing loved ones, Dr. Newman says.
Take a moment to acknowledge your discomfort.
"By reminding yourself that this isn't about you, [you'll] therefore be able to be there for someone else," Dr. Saltz says.
If you're concerned you'll say something unintentionally hurtful, voice the fear, suggests Johanna Kaplan, PhD, director and clinical psychologist at Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill. She suggests you might tell a person who's grieving: "I am so afraid to say the wrong thing, but I want to be here for you at the same time and I want you to know that."
Just making this statement "will be a huge comfort," Kaplan says.
2. Acknowledge the Loss
"Reaching out is really important," Dr. Newman says. That can take the form of a letter, email or phone call if you're not close by.
"I always urge people to try to find something to say that's kind and acknowledges the loss," Dr. Newman says. Coming up with the right words isn't easy, but it's OK to use simple phrases (think: I'm so sorry to hear about your loss; my condolences).
"There isn't often a lot of elaborate stuff to say," Dr. Saltz points out. Expressing concern and sympathy is still valuable, even if you don't feel eloquent in your phrasing.
If you can add a personal memory, do so, Dr. Newman advises.
You May Need a Moment for Your Own Grief
Clinical psychologist Susan Silk wrote about the “ring theory” for supporting people in crisis, in a 2013 opinion piece, co-written with arbiter, author and mediator Barry Goldman, in the Los Angeles Times.
Here’s how the ring theory works: The person directly experiencing grief goes in a central circle, while those close to that person go in a circle outside. Many people orbit the person experiencing a loss — the idea behind this tactic is that “when you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help,” Silver and Goldman write. Push requests for sympathy to those in circles bigger than your own.
This theory can be an incredibly helpful framework. But if you experience the loss — even if you’re in an outer circle — take a moment to acknowledge that, Dr. Newman says. “It’s important to try, even though it’s painful, to have memories and allow yourself to think about the memories,” she says. This can be part of being with the person who is in the central circle; having your own memories is a way of sharing, Dr. Newman says.
3. Listen and Respond to the Person’s Grief
People who are grieving can't always easily verbalize what they need, Kaplan says. Try to respond to signals, giving space or being present as needed, Kaplan says. Or, try being direct. You can say, "Let me know what you need and what you do not need," she notes.
What's often most helpful to someone who is grieving: "Being able to share their feelings and feel understood," Dr. Saltz says.
Keep in mind there is no fix for grief, Dr. Saltz says. Rather than looking for a solution to the person's feelings (or even the "right" thing to say), focus on being present and listening with empathy, Dr. Saltz says.
4. Attend Commemorative Events
If there is a memorial, celebration of life or funeral (Zoom or in-person), attend it, Dr. Newman says. People "value others showing up," she says.
5. Use Language From the Person’s Community
There are some phrases that are best avoided when speaking to someone experiencing loss. (More on that in a moment.)
But it can be helpful to use the language from the person's spiritual or religious community, Dr. Newman points out. That's true too for gestures that are customary in the grieving person's community, such as sending flowers or making donations.
6. Offer Practical Help
Grief stops clocks and makes to-do lists and everyday routines meaningless. And yet: Groceries still need to be purchased, meals eaten, dishes washed, dogs walked and all the other chores that occupy so much time.
"Life seems to inexorably go on, no matter what happens in our lives," Dr. Newman says.
Offering to help by sending food, sleeping over or doing dishes are "all ways of communicating love and genuine support," Kaplan says.
Try to offer something specific, rather than a generic "let me know what I can do to help." This allows the person to think through what they really need, Dr. Newman says.
7. Stick Around
Grief continues after funerals and services, Kaplan points out.
"It is important to be there in those times too," she says.
A simple text message to check in or sending a gift card for a take-out meal can show that you care.
What Not to Say — or Do — to Someone Who's Grieving
Showing up and expressing your sympathy is the most important thing you can do. But there are some phrases and attitudes that are best avoided, experts say.
Here's what not to do when consoling someone:
- Dismiss their grief: Avoid a phrase like "They're in a better place," Kaplan says. You don't want to dismiss the person's loss, Dr. Newman agrees. "It's one thing for somebody who's been living with a loved one who's in great pain to sort of express that, but a different thing for you outside of the bigger grief circle to say it," Dr. Newman says.
- Make it all about you: There's a temptation to take over, comparing the person's grief to your own, Dr. Saltz says. Resist that. "Your experience may be totally different than their experience," she says. It's not helpful to tell people how to feel, how you felt or how others have felt in similar situations, she says. "It can end up being invalidating for them" if you talk about getting over grief in a set amount of time.
- Provide solutions for feelings: Doing so can "put pressure on the person who's grieving," Dr. Saltz says. There are some practical things you can do (walking the dog, babysitting, calling relatives), but suggesting someone go for a walk to feel better is less helpful. Unless advice is requested, hold off on offering it. That said: If someone is expressing grief in a way that sounds like depression, or you're concerned they'll harm themselves, a practical thing you can do is help connect the person with a mental health professional, Dr. Saltz says.
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