Emily Threatt, author of the upcoming Loving and Living Your Way Through Grief, has some helpful insight into handling someone else’s loss.
Saying the right things to someone who is grieving can be a challenge. In the awkwardness following a death, sometimes people just don’t know what to say, so many times they don’t say anything, and I guarantee, that is not helpful. The most likely thing someone will say is “I’m sorry for your loss.” I remember years ago when the phase “Have a nice day” got popular all of the sudden. When you parted company with anyone, they were likely to say, “Have a nice day.” I first I thought that was a pleasant thing for people to do, until it became a constant drone that lost its meaning. That’s where “I am sorry for your loss” is now. People seem to think that any time they hear someone has died, those words must be spoken out of courtesy before anything else is said. I would really love if no one ever said “I’m sorry for your loss” again. Just saying these words doesn’t help anything except maybe for the person saying them that feels their obligation is now out of the way.
I heard a veteran say that she felt the same way about “Thank you for your service.” She said, “If that person was so grateful, they could give me a job, and then I’d feel the gratitude.” I have heard that for military personnel and veterans, they better thing to say is “Never forget.” I like that. If someone said something like, “I’ll never forget Ron and what a special person he was,” I would appreciate that thought. And don’t let your discomfort get in the way of showing up for your friend who needs you. With society’s attitude toward death, it’s easy to run the other way when it occurs, but that doesn’t help your friend who is experiencing the worst time of his or her life right now, and it doesn’t help you. Step up, be brave, and do what you can for your friend. And you may not need to say anything. Just listen and bring chocolate.
Here is a list of things that will be good for you to express to your friend:
Acknowledge the pain. Sometimes the griever will think they are the only one who has ever hurt like this. Tell them that their pain is real, that we all experience it at times of our lives, and let them know that you would be happy to listen.
Tell them that you don’t know what to say, and that you care, and you love them.
Tell them the favorite thing you remember about the person who died: their smile, their laugh, and events that you shared. Tell them anything positive you remember.
Let them know you will listen, then listen without judgement or advice. Sometimes we need to just express what we are feeling and know someone hears us.
Tell them if you would be happy to come stay with them for a few days or longer.
Ask them to talk to you about their loved one any time they want.
Tell them that they don’t have to talk, that you will just sit by them and be there for them.
Tell them you are so sorry that they have to go through this.
Let them know that they are in your prayers.
There are lots more things you can say. Just express yourself from the heart. Trust that you will know what to say. Be honest, be kind, be loving, and the best words will come to you. Keep in mind that when you are expressing yourself or offering advice that what you say needs to be about the person you are talking to.
What else can you do to help? My best answer is: something. The thing I heard more than anything else was “Just let me know if you need anything.” Please stop saying this now. They aren’t going to call you, of if they do, it’s likely to be at a point where they really need you right then and you may not be available. Instead, be proactive. Take them food, flowers, or little gifts weeks or months after the death. Let them know they are remembered. If you are taking food to someone who lives alone, a giant casserole is not a good idea, but that casserole divided into individual servings and wrapped for the freezer would be much appreciated.
Sometimes we let our fear hinder us from doing what we would like to or what we think is best. This is not the time to let fear get in your way. Go to your friend and offer to listen, offer to help, offer to just be there. The most important thing is to stay in touch. Share your love and support, and make the most of this very special time.