Does it ever feel like your tongue is tied the moment a friend shares some terrible personal news? You feel compassion for what they are experiencing and want to help, but are unsure of what to say or do. “I’m sorry” sounds flat and trite, while “It will be o.k.” seems presumptuous.
We don’t always know what to say because few words sound “good enough” when someone is experiencing an immense amount of grief. Rather than grow uncomfortable or feel tongue-tied, we can use best practices to support loved ones who are distressed. Here are some top tips.
1. Don’t Distance Yourself
Our instinct is to run away when we don’t know the right thing to say or do. We convince ourselves that it is to give the other person space to heal when really, we are simply unsure of how to react. While it’s completely appropriate to give a loved one time to recover, we can offend them if we shy away from responding entirely. If you aren’t sure how to respond, simply know that checking in on a loved one once a week to say hi is very much appreciated.
2. Refrain from Bad Advice
We also have an immediate instinct to try and fix a problem when we see it. The difficulty is that not every problem can be fixed, nor do we always know the best way to fix it. A grieving friend has probably already thought of numerous scenarios on how to fix a problem, and just wants someone to talk to.
Moreover, some of the well-meaning advice can be harmful, especially as it pertains to health. A great rule of thumb is to refrain from giving advice unless someone specifically asks for your input. When you do give advice, be clear that the advice is merely your opinion and that the griever should ask others for more input.
3. Don’t Rush Them
Grief is a different process for everybody. Some grievers put their feelings aside to get through their day-to-day lives. Others are openly upset for months until they have processed the trauma. And some may seem to be handling things well for a few weeks but are then depressed for a time afterward.
Trying to make a sad person feel normal again will only make the individual feel guilty or ashamed of their grief, which could prolong the grieving process even further. Accept that the person may never be entirely the same, depending on the nature of the loss. Give them the space and support they need to process their grief properly.
4. Stay Away from Platitudes
There are a lot of platitudes that well-meaning friends may say that can make matters worse. For example, telling a friend who just had a miscarriage that “God has a plan” or “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is not very compassionate or helpful. Not only do these platitudes sound inauthentic, but they can also be highly offensive to someone who is in shock and grief over a tragedy. If you find yourself wanting to say platitudes, it is better to refrain from speaking.
5. Ask How They Are
Being there for someone doesn’t just mean saying “I’m sorry for your loss.” It means checking in on the person once in a while to show that you care. Make sure to allow space and time for them to address how they are doing. Try not to interrupt or give unwarranted advice. Provide the room they need to express their feelings. If they offer two-word answers such as “I’m fine,” try not to push too much or take it personally. They will talk when they are ready to talk.
6. Silence is O.K Too
A simple hug or touch of the hand can be enormously powerful to someone who is grieving. Even though you may feel incredibly uncomfortable at the thought of silence, put aside your discomfort for the sake of the other person. Physical affection is often just what we need to get through a dark moment, and it will be very much appreciated later on.
Are you experiencing grief or have you gone through a significant trauma? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straighttalkcounseling.org. One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.