So many of us find ourselves in un-chartered waters when a friend losses a loved one. We’re not sure what to say or what to do? How do we comfort our friend in this emotional life changing time? After 30 years working in mental health, I have a few suggestion that you may find beneficial for this situation.
I recall in my early 20’s while acting as a crisis counselor, well-intentioned, I would often try to explain the grieving process to my clients. What I didn’t understand at the time is that they didn’t need an explanation, they needed support. Being young and inexperienced, I didn’t know the difference. And just the other night, I was listening to a new client tell me her story of losing her husband recently. When I hung up the phone, I had some introspection about the conversation, and how it differed greatly from years ago.
In my late 20’s after I had a few years under my belt, I began teaching and providing training’s to individuals who were entering the helping profession. One of the biggest things I see is people saying things like “I know how you feel”, or “I understand”. Again, well-intentioned, by saying I know how you feel, we’re trying to build rapport and show support. But what I have found is the complete opposite is true. It’s almost a way to invalidate the sudden loss of your friends significant other. And while there may come a time when sharing your story of your grieving process is applicable, save it until you are specifically asked.
I feel that the best communication many times is non verbal communication. The hug, the hand on their shoulder and direct eye contact speak volumes. Nothing affirms your support more than your complete attention. Be keenly aware of the non verbal clues your friend is sending. If you want to start a dialog, start by saying that you’re sorry for their loss. Then very quickly move into asking open-ended questions on what their needs are. Questions like “Do you need me to make any calls for you?” “Can I get a grocery list together and go shopping for you?” and “Do you have any bills that are coming up that need to be paid?” These are practical questions that serve a dual purpose. First, you’re getting them to talk. While often at first they may be despondent, this often opens the door to how they are feeling. Secondly, routines are often thrown off with the loss of a loved one, and you want to make sure that the necessities are covered.
I have had clients in the past especially my elder clients who had no idea what bills have been paid or when they’re due. Their spouse had taken care of them, and as a result, we were left scrambling trying to keep certain utilities on. It’s important to be practical and see the whole picture when dealing with the sudden loss of life.
But getting back to communication. Listening will be yours and theirs greatest asset. Create a safe space for them to talk. Let them lead the conversation if the chose to talk. Many are the time I sat for hours with a client in silence just showing support by affirming non verbally, that they’re not alone. As days and weeks pass many people will fall out of the loop. As this happens, a weekly phone call or a drop in is very often much appreciated. Perhaps even getting them out of the house and engaging in usual activities again.
There is life long after the loss. But it is a process. One that should not be compared, nor explained. It is one that must experienced. The best we can do is to give them the space and support while they put back the pieces of a life that is now foreign to them.