Q: A close friend of mine lost someone close to them recently, and sometimes they seem so lost. I’d like to help them feel better, or to at least not say anything to make them feel worse. What can I do?
A: The first key in helping a grieving loved one is to simply accept where they are in the process. Everybody goes through grieving in their own time, and sometimes you can get frustrated that the grieving loved one seems “stuck.” Don’t worry; they’ll make it through the process.
It also helps to accept that there’s no right way to grieve. Each person experiences the process differently because each person looks at the loss through their own lens. Again, just be patient.
Sometimes, we struggle for things to say to make our grieving loved ones feel better. These phrases come out awkward and sometimes seem insensitive. For example, “He’s in a better place now,” might make sense to you, but the other person might see it as minimizing their loss or even as if you’re implying that it was a good thing that the person died. Nobody says these things to be mean; they really are trying to help and, in their own way, to make the grieving loved one feel better. But it’s important to understand that the best thing you can do is simply ask how the person is feeling and offer support. Even if your words could make everything better, it’s important for the process that the person is allowed to feel the pain. It’s part of the healing.
As for specific actions to take, try checking in after a month or two has gone by. Grieving loved ones are often flooded with assistance immediately after a death — church casseroles, for example — but after awhile, everyone assumes the grieving person is okay and even doing well. That’s when the support goes away. Sometimes, just the offer of dropping off another meal or helping with another errand will take stress off someone and show that you still care as they continue adjusting to day-to-day life without their loved one.
A bonus tip related to children: Kids often grieve differently than adults do. They might seem quiet, or they may seem to be shrugging it off, but they’re really confused by the loss and trying to process and understand what happened. It’s okay to ask how they’re feeling, but if they’re not ready to talk about it, be patient and let them continue to process the death, too. Don’t worry – they’ll find you when they’re ready to talk, especially if you’ve been supportive and show that you care.
One final thought: The American Psychiatric Association removed a bereavement clause as an exception to its definition of depressive disorders in its latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (The DSM is used as the diagnosing guide for mental health in the United States.) Unfortunately, while grieving can look a lot like Depression, it’s actually a normal and necessary reaction to the loss of a loved one, so the APA didn’t help most people by removing the exception. Be careful not to refer to your loved one’s grief as Depression unless it lasts longer than usual and/or is more severe than expected. If you’re truly worried that your love one’s grieving is more intense than would be expected, you should encourage them to see a qualified professional who specializes in grief before any labeling is done.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Columbus, Ohio. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s a regular columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. Call 614-477-5565 if you’d like to schedule an appointment with Carl. Online sessions may be available.)