How to Support a Friend’s Grief

Posted by: Brigitte Ganger in Grief and Guidance | March 18
Early in my professional career, I was on a work trip with a colleague who had become a friend. Traveling for work can be challenging, so having someone who was a few years older show me how to maximize my time while traveling was a blessing. We were at an outdoor event and as we sat to eat lunch after the morning session, he received a phone call. I didn’t think anything of it as he got up from the table and walked away. 

A few minutes later my phone rang, and it was my colleague asking me if I could take him to the airport immediately, there was a family emergency, and he must head home. We jumped into the rental car, and he began crying, telling me his grandmother had just passed and his parents were heartbroken and shaken.  

I was completely unprepared to provide my friend and colleague with support. The only thing I could think of doing was to ask him questions about his grandmother – where she lived, what she liked to do and what made her so special to him. After I dropped him off at the airport so he could catch a flight back home, I made a pledge that I would never be that unprepared to help a friend with their grief again.  

In my research, including talking to grief counselors and those who have gone through the grieving process, there are several ways you can support a grieving friend through an incredibly tough time.

Be a Good Listener 

Foremost, be a good listener. Being truly engaged and present for your friend is essential, because they are on an emotional rollercoaster, trying to process their feelings in real-time. Being a good listener has many characteristics, but not, for example, comparing the grief they are feeling right then to how you felt years ago when your grandmother passed away, is one of the most important. 

Do Not Put a Positive Spin on the News 

When you do offer some thoughts, try not to put a positive spin on what has happened. One thing I hear often, when someone who passes away at the age of 80 or above, is, “well, they lived a long life.” For the person who is grieving, who is broken hearted, hearing that their sadness should be minimized because the person who passed was in their 90’s is not supportive.  

Be Empathetic 

It sounds obvious but be empathetic in everything you say. For example, try not to ask, “How are you doing?” (Which on one hand is obvious and on the other hand, exceedingly difficult for the person grieving to articulate how they are doing.) Rather, say, “You must be devastated at the loss of your grandmother.” Or “Your grandmother’s passing must be heartbreaking.” The responses to those statements will give you an immediate indication of whether you ask a follow-up question or just stay quiet and listen.  

Be There in Whatever Form You Can 

For some of us, when we learn about a friend who is grieving, our first instinct is to avoid the situation, or the person, as much as possible. Do not feel like you must turn into a grief counselor, but also try to offer some support, either in person or through an electronic message. A simple, “I’m sorry to hear of your loss, please let me know if there is anything I can do” will be well-received. Just being present for that person may mean a great deal to them.  

And if you can find it in your heart to be present for someone grieving, try to be present consistently. Follow up with them after your first encounter following the death of their loved one. Have a great casserole recipe? Make it and deliver it with the message, “hey, I know you’re going through a lot, but who doesn’t love a turkey casserole?” Send a text saying you are going to the grocery store and could pick something up for them or you are running errands and you would be happy to pick up their dry-cleaning.  

Eventually, you are going to have a friend who is suffering from the loss of a loved one. Remember a few important ways you can provide support: Be a good listener. Do not put a positive spin on the news. Be empathetic in everything you say. And perhaps most importantly, be there in whatever form you can and be there throughout.  

And chances are, you may be that friend at some point and will appreciate the support you get from your friends.  

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