We’ve all been there: you encounter someone you know is grieving, and you have no idea what to say that would be helpful. You desperately wish you could think of something, but all the lines that pop into your head are lame platitudes or cheesy sayings. What to do?

Grief is everywhere. Many of us know someone who has passed from COVID-19. Many of us have gone through significant life changes in the past year as a result of the virus—loss of job, loss of relationships, changes in housing, changes in health, and more. Grief is a broad category. Anything that causes a change in your life that is difficult, unanticipated, or devastating can be considered grief.

Grief is also personal: everyone’s experience of it is different, and what causes grief for one person might not for someone else. As a result, we often don’t know what to say. We so desperately want to help bring healing to the hurting souls around us, but our words fall short. Here are a few ideas for where to start.

Grief is uncomfortable and awkward

Grief is uncomfortable and awkward because we can’t fix it for someone else, and we can’t make them feel better. Furthermore, the experiences that cause grief are usually not tied up nicely like a package or explainable in a satisfactory way. We tend to feel helpless, so it can be easy to avoid the subject or the person altogether, but it’s better to simply accept these truths.

Accept that being around them and having it come up in conversation will feel uncomfortable. Knowing this before you go into the situation can help avoid feelings of surprise on your end. Learning to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable is a sign of emotional intelligence and maturity—and it will help your grieving friend or family member. When I went through several difficult situations, I was grateful to have loved ones around me who supported me despite the uncomfortable feelings it presented for them.

Usually the best thing to say is “I’m sorry”

We don’t know what someone else is experiencing, even if we’ve gone through something similar. This is because we all process our emotions differently and reconcile our feelings to our experiences in very different ways.

When my husband and I went through infertility and subsequent fertility treatments, some of the unhelpful things we were told were, “Have you thought about IVF?” or, “At least you don’t have kids waking you up at night.” While I understood that the intentions were good, the actual words were not helpful. The most helpful thing we heard was simply, “I’m so sorry you are going through this. I’m here to listen and support you.”

Your presence and care matters

Knowing who was available to reach out to in times of grief has been especially comforting for me. I knew that these individuals were there for me and didn’t expect anything from me in terms of consistent contact (a relief in itself).

You may have to offer your ear, shoulder, or another form of support occasionally, as grieving individuals are often not great at asking for it. Sometimes it might look like, “Hey, I’m at the grocery store and I’m driving home near your house. Can I bring you a gallon of milk or loaf of bread?” That can help the individual feel like you are not going out of your way, which can often deter her from accepting your invitation. Asking when during the day your friend typically prefers to receive calls or texts is a good idea, too.

Our society in general does a poor job grieving, perhaps because we view it as being unproductive or interfering with our daily responsibilities. However, I’ve learned personally and professionally that our unresolved grief will most certainly interfere with our daily lives eventually unless we find a way to work through it that works for us individually.

It’s much easier to share the load with a caring, sensitive friend than it is to go it alone—so don’t be afraid to reach out when you see someone grieving in your life. 

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