When someone we love is grieving the death of a friend of family member, it's a challenge to know what to do. We want to say the right thing, show support and ultimately help in the healing process.
Yet all too often, we end up awkwardly offering advice, sputtering a spiritual rationalization or avoiding the situation altogether.
Sara Alcoran can relate. She remembers the early morning phone call, the immediate sense of dread, the sorrow in her husband’s voice when he said, "Dad is gone."
She remembers hastily packing up her infant daughter and speeding to the fire station where Linus worked.
"When I saw him, all I could do was hug him and cry," says Sara, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom. "I had no idea what to say."
Like Sara, all of us try to be effective comforters but may find ourselves coming up short. Still, there are specific ways we can respond when those we love lose someone close to them.
In an instant, the death of a loved one turns life upside-down. Emotions are piqued and responsibilities are overwhelming, making it tough to know when to reach out and when to give space.
"I believe it is more helpful to acknowledge the loss," says Ann Kihara, a licensed marriage and family counselor in Pacific Grove, Cali. "You can even simply say, 'I'm so sorry for your loss.' "
Although the initial contact may feel nerve wracking, take a first step by promptly making a call, writing a letter or paying a visit. Kihara cites other explicit do's and don'ts when standing alongside someone in pain:
"It's unhelpful, even callous, to say things like, 'This is God's will,' 'They would not want you to cry,' or 'They are in a better place.'" Kihara reasons, "We cannot presume to know the will of God nor the emotional state of our loved one who is grieving."
Instead, here's what you can do:
Be there to listen. "It's always tempting to give advice, but don't," Kihara says. True empathy, encouragement and compassion will help those going through a difficult time.
Encourage professional help if necessary. If you feel your loved one is unable to cope alone, gently recommend that he or she seek professional help. Providing a list of area grief counselors may expedite the process.
State specifically how you're able to help. Offer to prepare a meal, provide a ride, or help clean and sort through old items. Be sensitive to your friend's feelings and proactive when it comes to meeting needs.
Remind your loved one to take time out to rest, and to hold off on any major life decisions. It is undoubtedly draining to adjust to a loss and this impairs the ability to think clearly and make decisions.
Reach out when your friend most misses a loved one. "Holidays and anniversaries will often trigger the grief response—even many years later," says Kihara. "Those are good times to be extra supportive and loving."
When it comes to helping a loved one cope with loss, Renee Mahdavi knows what it's like to be on the receiving end. After experiencing several miscarriages, Renee acknowledges the importance of validating the loss itself.
"I think the most valuable support we can possibly offer is to be there—just be there—and be willing to not 'fill the space' with our words," says Renee. "There are few things more powerful than knowing we are loved and supported through the valleys of life."