When someone close to us experiences a loss – – be it a death in the family or a pet, a lost job or an ended relationship – – it can often be difficult to know how to provide support. Many people feel uncomfortable around emotional pain and don’t know what to say or do, so frequently they stay away from the friend or relative in need. Being a support to someone in grief takes a kind of courage and compassion – – to just be there in the face of another’s pain. Don’t let concern over saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say keep you from supporting your friend or relative. While it is important to avoid minimizing the loss, which are often inadvertently conveyed with statements related to “replacement” of the person, pet or relationship, saying “I’m sorry for your loss. I know it must be hard right now.” is often enough.
How you choose to follow up after an initial contact with the grieving person depends on several issues:
your own ability to help out
the grieving person’s comfort level with having someone else around
the closeness of your relationship with the grieving person
the grieving person’s changing needs as time goes on
First, only offer the kind of support and assistance that you can provide without resentment and with which you can follow through. Recognize that the grieving person may need to talk at times and may need to avoid talking about the loss at other times. Be flexible and allow the grieving person to help guide you with what is needed. Check in with the grieving person regularly: don’t bombard him/her but try not to leave it all up to the grieving person to initiate contact, e.g., “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” without any follow up. Many people grieving a significant loss don’t have the energy to keep contacting others and may not even know what they need themselves unless an offer is made that fits the need. For example, offer to take on routine tasks such as cooking, cleaning or watching the kids every once in awhile. The person in grief may be isolating and may need to get out of the house; offers to go out for lunch or see a movie can be very helpful, just don’t insist if the clear message is that the person really isn’t up to it right then.
Most important to providing support in times of grief is patience. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified 5 typical stages of grief that most people experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, the stages may not follow that specific order, and they can cycle through stages more than once. Keep in mind that our current culture often puts limits on the “appropriate” amount of time someone should grieve before she/he “should just get over it”. Traditionally, death was grieved formally for at least a year. While there are no hard and fast rules about grieving anymore, remember that the time it takes to “move on” varies greatly from person to person. Honor your friend or relative’s time frame. If an inability to function with typical daily life persists, professional help may be indicated.