Trying to comfort someone who has lost a loved one is tricky; what can you say or do without sounding like a tired cliché? If you have never lost someone close to you, you may not know what they are going through and feel like you can offer support. But, no matter how close you are or if you have experienced someone dying, you can help them.
Whenever someone close to us is going through a tough time, whether it is stress, job loss, depression, or bereavement, a common thing to say is, "Is there anything you need?" While it feels like that lets someone know they can ask you for help, it's become a bit of a cliché and sounds disingenuous. But it can be challenging to know what assistance that person may need, and people grieve differently. Some people prefer to stay busy, while others like to stay in bed and feel their feelings for a little while. Every method of grieving is valid, and they all may need support.
Instead of saying, "Let me know if there is anything you need," try saying, "how can I help take things off your plate while you are grieving?" Especially if someone is close to you, offer more concrete support. You could offer things like:
Be prepared that they may not want the help. Do not be offended if that is the case, and ask if you can check in next week to see if there is any way you can help. Some people grieve by withdrawing for a bit, and that is okay. Please do not overstep boundaries and push your help onto them when they have already said no. They are grieving and do not need to be dealing with pushiness.
Parents often put their kids first in everything; while that is necessary, they are also people. It can be hard to grieve when they need to care for their kids, especially if the deceased was a spouse or partner. They will try to help their children by answering complex questions, staying strong, and maintaining a routine.
One of the best things you can do is to offer help as much as possible. If you are already trusted to watch the kids, the most support you can offer is to take the kids for a few hours so that they can have some time alone. You could do after-school pick-up one day, take the kids to their activities, or take them out to the park for an afternoon so your friend can have some time alone. It would be best if you were prepared for your friend to say no; they might want to stay together as a family during this time or not want to change the kids' routines that much. If that is the case, tell your friend that you care about them and understand that they might find it hard to grieve while caring for children and ask if there is another way you can support them. It might be coming to their house one evening, cooking dinner for them all, and helping wash up. Again, if they insist they are fine, ask if you can check in with them next week to see if there is any way you can help.
The bereaved may be a colleague or neighbour whom you often see enough but aren't necessarily close to; this can be one of the most challenging situations because it involves trying to help or comfort without crossing boundaries. You do not want to be that neighbour who barges in and becomes a nuisance.
The first step is expressing your condolences. A simple "I'm sorry to hear about your loss" will suffice. You might add a personal comment if you have met them or spoken about them.
You can offer your help even if you are not close. At work, you could offer to take a call if they feel themselves getting choked up (a wave of grief can hit at the most inopportune times!) If you are their supervisor, you could discuss extending their deadlines and decreasing their workload for a few weeks.
If you are a neighbour, you could offer to mow their lawn every time you mow yours or ask permission to drop off meals once a week. It is often the small gestures that mean a lot.
The thing most people struggle with is what to say to someone who is grieving. Nothing will bring their loved one back, and saying "it'll be okay" is hardly true. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. Grieving people need time and patience, someone to listen and be a shoulder to cry on. If you are close, invite them around or ask to visit them. Bring food and make them a cup of tea. Sit with them and listen to them talk and cry, sometimes simultaneously. Your presence can be the best help for them.
Ultimately, your support will depend on your relationship with the bereaved. A close friend, best friend, or family member can provide much more support just because of their access. Allow your friend to lean on you heavily during this time. Call and ask to come or invite them; make sure to let them know that you don't care if they are in pyjamas and haven't showered in two days; you want to be there for them. Reassure them that they don't have to leave bed if they don't like it, that you can bring them a cup of tea and watch crappy daytime TV with them for a few hours.
If you are close enough with them that they let you into their house, ask to help with things that need doing. Ask them to take their rubbish out or do the dishes in the sink so that it is one less thing to worry about. Do not shame them for not doing those things; their getting out of bed to answer the door is a win. It is essential to ask instead of just doing it because no one likes people going through their things and moving things around without permission. If you are tidying up, ask if you need anything to avoid moving or throwing out. A coffee cup on the bench might seem like it needs washing, but it could have been the cup the deceased drank out of on the day they died, and it still has their lipstick on it. While most people may look at it and see something that needs cleaning, it is something that the grieving person is not ready to part with yet. Offer to move it to a safe space so that it is kept for them (and no one accidentally tidies it away.)
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