How to Support a Grieving Friend

July 25, 2022
  • Private Banking
BBH Senior Advisor Ellen Perry provides lessons learned from the recent illness and death of her husband on how to show up and support friends who are grieving.

I recently came to the realization that we don’t really have guidebooks or customs for how we help those among us who are grieving. And given that loss is universal and will touch us all many times, we could benefit from knowing more. In our culture, we rarely talk comfortably about the realities of grief, so it’s hard to know how to help someone we care about.

I have many times wanted to help a friend feel supported but didn’t know what to do. So, I did the best I could, and that, I now realize, was far from optimal. Recently, however, I was on the other side of that grief equation when my husband passed away. I learned so much from the amazing friends and family members who loved and supported me.

Everyone’s experience with grief is different – there is no universal experience and no right way to grieve. However, these are the lessons I learned through my own loss. I hope they are helpful to you as you navigate grief in your own life or the lives of loved ones.

  • Don’t stay away from those who are facing loss and grief because you don’t want to bother them. A sad part of losing someone you love, and grieving, is that it is lonely and isolating. So, lean in. Your friend will tell you to back off if it’s too much. Text, call or drop something off at the house. A close friend of mine who is also an early riser would bring a latte to my doorstep at 6:30 a.m. and text me, “Do you want a latte, or a latte and a hug?” It was perfect – some days I just needed coffee, and other days I dearly needed the hug, too. A handwritten note is also lovely.
  • If you don’t know what to say, say just that. Express your love, sadness and concern as simply and clearly as you can. Don’t stay silent because you feel awkward. Just say, “I wish I had words that might help, but please know that I am here for you.”
  • Don’t try to cheer them up. Join them in the sadness and pain. Acknowledge and witness the loss of someone who mattered deeply. I didn’t want anyone to help me look on the bright side. I bristled when well-intentioned people started a sentence with “at least.” At least he didn’t suffer. At least you have your children. At least you had all those years together. At least you had a big love that many people never find. None of that was helpful to me. It is human nature to look on the bright side for someone we love, but in the immediate aftermath of a loss, please don’t ask them to look at the silver lining to help you feel better, and avoid making predictions about how happy they will be again one day.
  • Be careful about using the term “closure” in the days, weeks or months after a loss. For many people who are grieving the death of a loved one, the idea that they will get closure anytime soon is unrealistic. Suggestions and expectations that they can close this chapter and move on with their lives may make them feel more alone and misunderstood. Be careful, too, about imposing your faith or religious beliefs on them, particularly if you are not sure what they believe.
  • Being seen is crucial. The person grieving longs to be understood when they often cannot fully explain what they need or are just too exhausted to teach others how to support them. Try to empathize. What would you need?

When my husband was hospitalized, my dearest friend flew from afar to be with me and stayed a week. She made coffee every morning and poured wine in the evenings. She shopped, cooked, ran errands and helped our daughter with whatever she needed. She made a calm home for me to come back to at night. On one particularly long and painful day, as I staggered home from the hospital at 3 a.m. to grab a couple of hours of sleep, she had dimmed the lights, lit a candle in my bedroom, cleared away the clutter, laid out my softest pajamas and put a glass of water on the bedside table. These were the kindest acts I could imagine.

  • Don’t ask questions that are too big, such as “How can I help?” or “What are you doing for yourself?” Ask the small questions that are easily answered. Some of my favorites were:
    • I am bringing you dinner tonight – cheddar or Swiss on your burgers?
    • I’m going to come every day to walk the dog – what time is best?
    • I know you have a houseful of people – how many are there? Do you want tacos or sushi, and is 6:30 p.m. good, or is 7 p.m. better?
    • I love folding laundry, changing sheets and cleaning out the fridge – how’s tomorrow for any of that?
  • Be creative and broad when thinking about what might help. Don’t wait for the grieving friend to suggest ideas. My husband was hospitalized when our daughter had an important birthday, so friends offered to spend the evening with him so the rest of the family could gather for a sweet birthday celebration. This added a tiny bit of joy to a terrible time.
  • Accept the reality, and don’t try and fix it. Suggestions on what will make everything better were not helpful to me; they actually made things worse. The day after my husband passed away, someone said to me, “I know just what you need – a juice cleanse! You’ll feel so much better.” While that may be true, it was incongruous and unhelpful. However, I really do understand the strong desire to try and help it or fix it, anyway you can. I am very sure that I have said things to grieving friends in the past that were equally off-putting.
  • Try and help tackle tricky situations – managing the flow of visitors, communication updates to a broader circle of friends, meal delivery, cleaning out closets, papers and mementos, and so forth. Two friends of mine brilliantly and lovingly designed the program for the memorial service.
  • Help support other family members if you can. Paying attention to the other members of the family is often helpful and caring. It relieves your friend of some of that worry of how they can help.

The best advice I have is to just keep offering love and connection. Over and over. It’s the only thing that can help heal the loss. Love and connection. I have a friend who marks his calendar for one month, six months and 12 months after a death and reaches out with a phone call. Show up and be there with your friends’ grief. It matters more than you can ever know and is the gift of a lifetime.

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