by Kriston Wenzel, LBSW, CT
We struggle to know what to do when a friend loses a loved one through death. We want to say the right thing and hope in so doing, we’ll be able to “take the pain away.” However, that’s not how grief works. There are no “right words,” and the pain cannot “go away.”
There is no work-around to grieving—you can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you must go through it. The grief journey can be difficult for both the grieving person and his or her friends who bear witness to their friend’s grief.
Grief is a normal and natural response to loss, including death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, loss of a home, a move or any other losses we may face in life.
Working through grief involves accepting the loss, experiencing the pain of that loss and creating a different bond or relationship with the person you have lost.
How to Help a Friend Who is Grieving
- Give your friend permission to grieve. Grief is the hardest emotional work someone will ever do. Our society often rushes people through their grief. One of the greatest gifts you can give to a grieving friend is to sit silently by his or her side and listen to “the story.” For someone who is grieving, the need to tell the story of what happened is intense and can be healing. Sitting silently does not mean listening without interest, but it does mean listening without rushing the person through a story you may have already heard. The value in telling the story is not to inform the listener of something; the value is to the storyteller. In sharing the story, the storyteller affirms what has happened and gives voice to his or her emotions.
- Accept the person’s feelings. No feelings are wrong, they simply are. Feelings of grief can sometimes overwhelm the person. Feelings of anger, guilt, sadness and loneliness can be upsetting and uncomfortable for both you and the grieving person. One of the important messages to convey is a wide range of feelings is normal and your friend is not alone in his or her experience. Remind them of your support and willingness to listen to their feelings.
- Encourage the person to accept help from others. He or she doesn’t need to do this alone. We pride ourselves in being self-sufficient but it’s helpful to remind your friend that we all need help from time to time. This is especially true during a time of loss.
- Do something for your grieving friend. Offer specific assistance, such as mowing the lawn, shoveling snow or making a meal. Remember the person is flooded with emotions and practical things to be done. His or her ability to prioritize and reach out may be stretched to the limit, so being specific in how you can help is a great way to support the person. Instead of saying, “call me if you need anything,” say “I’d like to bring a meal over, would tonight work for you?”
- Encourage the grieving person to verbalize his or her feelings out loud. Writing letters to the person who died, journaling or visiting the gravesite are all ways to allow feelings to have a voice. That voice is healing in the grief process.
- Don’t worry about saying the right thing. Simply showing up for the person can be much more powerful and meaningful than the words you say. There are no magic answers or words. You can’t take the pain away or keep the person from suffering, but you can help them feel less alone.
- Listen without judgment. Remember that every loss is unique, and the experience is based on a variety of factors, including who died, how, what the relationship was with the deceased, religious and cultural background, gender and other stresses in the grieving person’s life. All of these factors will influence your friend’s grief and may be unknown to you. Listen without judgment and criticism. We all need a friend who’s understanding.
- Avoid using clichés. Most cliché phrases unintentionally suppress the grief response. Sayings like, “It was God’s will,” don’t encourage people to voice their feelings. Without a voice, grief work is delayed. If you feel helpless, admit you don’t have the answers: “I’m not sure what to say or do, but I want you to know that I am here and I care about you.” Your vulnerability and transparency speak volumes to your friend and may reassure them it’s OK to share their feelings.
- Encourage the person to reminisce. Sharing stories and memories is healing and helps the person process their grief. If appropriate, share one of your stories of their loved one who died. Often saying the deceased person’s name out loud is comforting to the person who experienced the loss.
- Remember the value of presence. You may leave the house of a friend feeling like you said and did very little, but your presence spoke volumes. Your physical and emotional presence is more help for your friend than you’ll ever know.
Kriston Wenzel, LBSW, CT, is a grief specialist at Hospice of the Red River Valley. What she enjoys most about her work is having the chance to help individuals and families find their strength and resiliency during such a difficult time in their lives.
About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.