Grief is a universal experience that we all share. Many of us have been touched by grief ourselves, and we know how painful it can be. As a good friend or loved one, we want to protect, support and care for the people in our lives. When we see a grieving friend, it is natural to want to help. But it is important to remember that the way we connect can be helpful or harmful, depending on how we engage.
As vivid and powerful as grief can be, it is not always obvious or easy to recognize. There may even be times when we do not recognize our own grief, so it can be helpful to be aware of potential signs of grief in others.
Experiences such as the loss of a friend, loved one or something else important in life can trigger grief. We may look out for this immediately following the loss or during a traditional and cultural bereavement period. Often during this stage of mourning, people are still processing the loss. We can look out for our friend even after this period. A moment may emerge when the funeral is over, the flowers have all wilted and no more casseroles grace the doorway. This moment is often a time when people begin to step into their grief in a deeper way. Other moments could be the first holiday or birthday without the loved one. There could be other times when the grief may seem spontaneous.
Some signs you may witness in your friend may include overactivity or trying to stay busy. You may notice a change in work performance, distancing, apathy, low energy or isolating behavior. Your friend could also be direct and share that they are struggling with grief.
How NOT to Respond to Grief
You care about your friend or loved one, and you want to provide support. When we see someone in pain, it is natural to want to comfort them. Try to stay away from platitudes or clichés. Sayings like “Let’s look on the bright side” or “At least a part of your spouse lives on in your children” are not helpful and can even cause more pain. Even seemingly spiritual comments can be hurtful. Sayings like “God needed another angel” or “It was all part of God’s plan” can cause harm. The person experiencing grief might very well think, “I don’t want another angel in heaven—I want my son back.”
Trying to be humorous and make them laugh or sharing a bright story to try to lift their spirits could also hinder their grief. If you are trying to cheer them up or get them to look on the bright side, they may feel shut down or feel like they cannot talk about their pain or express their grief.
Helpful Responses for a Grieving Friend
Be a good listener. Allow people space to grieve and realize that there is nothing you can say to make them feel better or make their pain go away. Grief is an essential part of the healing process. It is important to remember that moaning, tears and cries can help the healing. Sharing about grief is something that can be healthy. The reality is that when someone experiences a significant loss, they will likely always have some relationship with their grief. The hope is that the grief can become integrated into their heart and healing in a healthy way.
It can be enormously helpful to simply be a good friend who can be by their side without giving unsolicited advice or platitudes. When someone is in pain, they need to vent, share and have someone by their side. Reaching out to your grieving friend on a regular basis or setting aside time to talk with them can be helpful and decrease their feelings of isolation.
Try to listen reflectively. You can paraphrase parts of what is shared, and you can ask open-ended questions. Asking someone a question like “Are you okay?” might get you the pat response, “I’m fine.”
Asking a follow-up question could provide more of an opening for your friend to share or vent (if they are ready to do so). An example is, “It’s been three weeks since the funeral. How have things been for you these past couple weeks?” The question invites them to think about the answer and engage.
Quality and supportive connections with friends and loved ones are helpful. However, in some cases professional support is needed. We call this complicated grief. Signs can include an inability to maintain routines or work, and persistent depression lasting months after the loss. If your grieving friend shares that they do not believe their life is worth living or if they are blaming themselves for their loved one’s loss, they could benefit from professional counseling support.
What to remember
The interactions mentioned previously are components of empathy. You are stepping into your friend’s space and walking with them. When we are empathetic and vulnerable, we must not forget to be mindful of our own needs and self-care. What are you feeling about your own losses when you are supporting your grieving friend? Think about your triggers and recognize when it is time for you to step away and take a break.
Grief and pain are natural parts of life that can impact us physically, emotionally and spiritually. Amid this we will do well to remember that people who are grieving need someone by their side when they walk through the dark valley. They need a friend to listen to their cries, moans and tears. They need someone to hold their hand and acknowledge their pain.
Gilchrist offers grief counseling and support for those who have experienced loss. To learn more about our services, visit gilchristcares.org/grief-counseling.