After the condolences

When a friend or a family member suffers a loss, it can be hard to know how best to help.  Sometimes that feeling of helplessness can lead to awkwardness and distance between you and the bereaved. Here are some common issues around supporting the grieving and some suggestions for what you can do.

The perfect phrase
Life is not a Hallmark card, even if everyone who’s attended a funeral wishes that they might hand out just the right sayings at the door.  Expressions of sorrow and love are always appropriate. But some comments can be less useful.

Sometimes in our own desire to let the bereaved know that we believe they will find happiness again, we can fall into saying things that may actually be hurtful. In his excellent book on sorrow, When Bad Things Happen to Good People Rabbi Kushner relates how a women who had lost her child was told that God only gives people what they can handle, and how this made this mother feel that her child suffered because of her strength. 

Obviously the comment was never intended this way. But looking for a moral lesson or something positive in someone else’s pain can create feelings ofnger and isolation. Rather than trying to wax philosophical – “he’s in a better place,” “death is only a journey behind the veil,” – it may most help to acknowledge the pain of loss.

And if you don’t know what to say, just say so (and perhaps offer a hug). It can help a bereaved individual to hear that others are equally lost and confused.

Being there
In the first few weeks after a death, the bereaved are often surrounded by family and friends. Casseroles and cards pour in and phone calls are regular.  But about a month to six weeks later, most friends and acquaintances will – fairly naturally – have moved forward with their lives. 

It’s at this time that you can offer a great deal of support.  But first you may have to prepare yourself for the reality that grieving a loss takes a long time – and is not a linear process. Some days your friend may seems like his or her old self; other days she or he may appear lost, confused, angry, depressed, or irritable.  This is perfectly normal.

So what can you do or say? The best thing is to be there, and let your friend set the pace. What he or she likely needs most is a willing pair of ears to listen. Don’t be afraid to mention the deceased, or to ask direct questions about how your friend is really doing. Your friend won’t have forgotten – you don’t have to pretend to have amnesia.

Time heals all wounds – or not
After a few months it may seem like your friend is “stuck” in the grieving process.  While it’s good to let them know that you are willing to help them find additional support if they need it (such as a bereavement group), don’t be judgmental about their process. Some losses never really fade – even though life goes on.

In today’s quick-paced world we often expect people to date again or to move on very quickly – other cultures have set mourning periods as long as three years.  There are really no time limits to grief. Some people only experience the full pain of loss many months or years later, and that is perfectly all right. Be patient – and encourage your friend to be patient with him or herself.

Anniversary dates – wedding anniversaries, birthdays, holidays – may be most difficult, particularly in the first year.  It’s a good day to call up and let your friend know that you are thinking about them, or extend an invitation.  But don’t expect that they will necessarily want to join you in carving a turkey.

Don’t expect perfection
And finally – give yourself some room to make mistakes as well.  Even if you say the wrong thing, or forget to call for a week or two, you are still an important person in your friend’s life.  He or she will be glad of your continued presence there.

More resources
Bereaved families online: