The past couple of years of working with families to memorialize their remarkable loved ones has taught me a lot about grief. I’ve seen and engaged with every kind of loss – from the loss of a parent, to a spouse, to a child. From expected loss to sudden loss.
I’ve realized in talking to people who haven’t experienced a major loss yet, that there can be a gap in understanding and knowledge on how to engage with someone who’s grieving.
In this article, I’ll share tips for engaging with the grieving so you can lean in to support your friend, rather than feeling awkward and uncertain of how to help.
Things to Remember When Engaging a Friend That is Grieving
When trying to help and support a grieving friend, there are a few important ground rules that might not be immediately obvious if you haven’t lost someone incredibly close. Even if you have, sometimes the immediate experience of loss and grief can feel far away.
Here are six incredibly helpful tips I’ve learned over the last few years working hand-in-hand with the grieving on what to say, how to say it, what to think, why to think it, and ultimately, how to help them not move on, but actually grieve.
1. Grief doesn’t end.
Our customers are some of the most inspiring, ‘draw purpose from pain’ people you’ll ever meet, but one thing we always hear is:
“There’s a permanent hole left in their absence – I’ll never be the same again.”
That’s not melodramatic, it’s just a reality.
The pain of a significant loss will always be there. It will change them, but they will learn to co-exist with it.
One of the best ways you can support a friend is simply understanding this.
2. Ditch the platitudes.
If you’ve talked to anyone who’s experienced a significant loss, the consensus across the board is that platitudes are the worst. Our customers share them like battle scars:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “He’s with God now.”
- “At least you’re young and can get remarried.”
People hate to see a friend suffer, so they try to get you to “look on the bright side.” While it comes from a good place, these statements feel like daggers to the heart, because it reduces this enormous experience to a trite takeaway, and will be interpreted as “we’ve all moved on already.”
That’s definitely not our intention, so before offering a consolation like this, first ask yourself, “Am I trying to justify what happened?” or “Am I just trying to make them feel better?”
If the answer is yes, then it may be counter-productive to say.
You’re probably wondering what you can do instead. Let’s unpack that in tip #3!
3. Acknowledge the suck & stick together.
Most people are uncomfortable around death, and so they tip-toe around someone who’s grieving and treat them with kid-gloves. This makes the person feel totally misunderstood, and signals to them that there’s no outlet to share what they’re feeling.
Grief will then take a very lonely turn.
If you’re wanting to support a grieving friend, don’t fear the tears. Let them know it’s OK they’re not ok, and you’ll hold the space for them to cry. To be angry. To be sad.
Call the situation for what it is and acknowledge the suck.
Sometimes just taking your friend's hand and saying, “This sucks so hard. We’ll get through this,” is the most comforting thing you can do, and a great replacement for condolences.
No platitudes needed. You just showed them that you understand, and gave them the best gift you can give: letting them know they don’t need to go through this alone.
As we discussed in tip #1, grief doesn’t end, and across time, it will show up in waves. Keep coming back to this approach.
A year from now, hearing wedding vows or seeing kids playing in a park might trigger your friend. If you see a grief wave taking over, take their hand, acknowledge the suck, and let them know you’ll get through this one, too.
4. Don’t ask how to help, just help.
We all know what it’s like when you’re hosting a dinner party and guests ask: “What can I do to help?”
We know they mean well, but more often than not it’s a hassle to think of things for them to do, then to delegate and provide instructions.
Now imagine being asked that question after your entire world came crashing down around you. You’re not really in the headspace to be the best project manager.
Rather than asking someone “How can I help?” look for ways to proactively help. Challenge yourself to find three things without even asking.
- Does the laundry need to be done?
- Could you pick up their prescription?
- Maybe make the kids’ lunches?
- Offer to drive the carpool to school?
Believe it or not, these little proactive acts of service are the things people remember most. If you don’t know what to say, then just find something to do without asking.
5. Remember that holidays are hard.
The third, fourth, and fifth Christmas’s can be as difficult as the first without them.
Knowing this, you might mark on your calendars the holidays that will be the hardest for your friend.
- Their loved one’s birthday
- The day they passed
- Maybe Mother’s Day or Father’s Day if they lost their Mom or Dad.
Then on those days, just shoot them a text that says: “I know today’s a tough day, so wanted you to know I’m thinking of you. Love you and sending you a hug through the line.”
6. Talk about their loved one.
When someone passes away, people’s first question is often, “What happened?”
It’s our natural, morbid curiosity, but it doesn’t serve our friend at all by having to rehash the painful details of how their loved one or family member died and remind them again that they’re no longer here.
At Eterneva, we don’t ask how they died, we ask who they were as a person. We’ll say:
- “What was your Dad like?”
- “What were your favorite qualities about him?”
- “How would you describe him to a stranger?”
- “What’s a favorite memory about your Dad?”
Some friends will be a little more private than others, but more often than not, you’ll see them light up at the chance to tell you about their loved one.
Because no one asks!
What’s can also be cathartic is going back and looking at pictures and videos together.
Helping a Long Distance Friend With Grief
We’re all just out here trying to live our best lives, the lives that are right for us. In doing that, we can often get pulled to separate parts of the world, hundreds of miles away if not multiple time zones away.
Our lives don’t stop when a friend experiences a loss, but there are still things we can do to show support and help a grieving friend anyway – even if we live faraway.
If you are looking to help out a friend who lives far away with the loss of close connection, all the ideas above are helpful, but also here are a few more thoughts to help bridge the distance gap.
1. Call out the details.
Absolutely send flowers for the funeral, but even better, send a more personal note, card or letter to your friend. In that, get detailed and specific about memories you have of their loved one or family member –– and the impressions those memories have left on you.
- Did their mom once make a meal for you that you loved? Or that you hated because it had something in it you weren’t used to? Include that memory –– and tie it back to your life now, how you are introducing your kid to different foods earlier in life, or how hard it can be cooking traditional meals for your partner’s family not knowing how they’ll like it.
- Did their partner have a specific life you could hear from rooms away? Was there a specific joke they never let go, and told to you over and over? Remind them of that, and how you are now using that joke with new friends in your current city, keeping that silly personality alive.
Whatever you remember, get specific. These details are likely ones they haven’t heard, or heard told in this way.
- What was it about this person that you really loved?
- How did they make you feel?
- What were your favorite memories?
- How have those moments changed you?
These memories and the retelling of them are hard, but they are some of the most meaningful we have, and to give them to the family or loved one suffering helps that family recognize the larger impact on the world their loved one had, and how exactly their memory will be kept alive through their connections.
2. Acknowledge their pain.
Talk about their loved one or family member, and about their relationship they had with them. Say things like:
- I remember when you said you and your mom always bonding over salsa.
- I know how happy you were that your brother and son were able to meet.
- That one time you and your husband welcomed us all in for Thanksgiving, and the looks the two of you exchanged the whole night -- it was so inspiring.
And then, acknowledge their pain and how the loss of that connection is inconceivable. Remind them of the beauty of that connection, and how it was clear to so many through small actions and words. Also, acknowledge that loss.
Whatever you do, talk about their loved one, any details you remember, how amazing the memories are, and how much this current situation really sucks.
3. Make on-going efforts.
Make a phone call, send a text message, show up, send small gifts, check in and keep a calendar of days and holidays you know will be hard for your friend.
Keep talking about their best friend, family member, partner, or loved one, remembering the small things, and telling your friend about the things that remind you of them.
If you find photos in old Facebook albums or on old film that your friend hasn’t seen, send those to them –– with a memory of that day. Laugh about those moments, talk about them with a smile on your face, so that they can hear that smile over the phone.
And most importantly, ask your friend questions:
- “Do you remember that day?”
- “Did you know about this photo?”
- “Will you be doing anything to honor your dad over Christmas?”
- “What was your mom’s favorite recipe to make for Thanksgiving?”
And let them talk. Let it pour out.
Real Life Examples of How Friends Helped During the Grieving Process
Grief is a naturally lonely emotion, but it can be exponentially bettered with small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness from friends and family.
Here are a few examples of ways Eterneva customers and their friends and family have helped through the process.
Jasmin’s surprise for her mom.
Jasmin’s mom lost her beloved cat and went through a very tough grieving process. Jasmin was right be her side through it all, even working with the pet loss center to take care of her ashes for her mother.
Her mom never asked what happened to those ashes, which was lucky for Jasmin because she had decided to use them to memorialize her mom’s pet and surprise her with the gift on the year anniversary.
You can see the full video below –– a full seven minutes –– of the surprise, the gift, and the entire emotional moment and reaction.
How paul incorporated shayla’s mom into their wedding.
When Paul proposed to Shayla, Shayla excitedly and immediately said yes. Little did she know, though, that the diamond in that engagement ring was really a cubic zirconia –– a placeholder for something much more meaningful Paul was working on having created and set.
Years prior, Shayla’s mother has passed, and Paul knew how important it was for her to have her mother at their wedding, honored is some way that felt fitting for the bright light she had been throughout Shayla’s life.
So, before the wedding, Paul sat down with Shayla and her son, and gifted her with the real diamond: one made from her mother’s ashes.
Denise’s new, different light.
When Denise lost her only son Austin the summer after his high school graduation, her world came to a halt. The brightness in her life was gone. Her community rallied around her, but little brought back the joy to her eyes through the stages of grief.
That is, until she began working with her local jeweler on a memorial option for Austin that would best honor his life and the amazing son he grew up to be.
What Not to Do/say if Someone is Grieving
Platitudes or cliches don’t do much to help a grieving person. They come from a good place, but they aren’t incredibly helpful to the grieving process, nor are they necessarily the right thing to say.
Here are a few things to not say to someone who is experiencing a loss. And a few other things you can say instead!
1. Don’t say: “I know how you feel.”
Whoever you just said this to will likely immediately think: “No, you don’t.”
And they’re probably right. Even if you’ve lost a similar relationship or person in your own life, every single connection is different, and every grief journey and experience is different as well.
None of us really know how someone feels, especially after a loss.
What you can say instead acknowledges the pain of the situation: “This really sucks. I am so sorry this is happening.”
That saying better captures what you mean and your good intention to help. It acknowledges the pain, without trivializing it or making it sound common or bland.
2. Don’t ask: “What can I do?”
People who are grieving are not in the best place to be good project managers –– giving people tasks and then explaining how best to do them. Asking what you can do to help is the wrong thing to say or do. Instead, figure out a few things you can do for someone without asking.
Here are the examples we gave earlier in the article:
- Does the laundry need to be done?
- Could you pick up their prescription?
- Maybe make the kids’ lunches?
- Offer to drive the carpool to school?
Small tasks like this are a huge help to just have done –– no asking, no project management, just thoughtfulness and one less thing on the list.
3. Don't ask: "How did they die?”
This is our natural morbid curiosity popping up. But you don’t want to put a loved one in a position to have to rehash the details of one of the most devastating days of their lives.
Instead, focus on the life of the person who passed, not how they died. And most importantly, allow the person grieving to talk or to not. Sitting in silence can be as helpful as bringing up happy memories.
4. Don't say: "It gets better.”
Most people who are grieving know that eventually, this too shall pass. At least, this incredibly devastating feeling.
But, the grief likely won’t pass. Not entirely.
Instead, there will be waves –– moments in the future that remind them of the loss when it all comes rushing back.
That’s normal. And all you can do now and then is to remind your friend that you will be there, no matter what, whenever it is needed, for however long. You are there, with them, to help them when they need it. That’s what friends are for.
5. Don't say: "They're in a better place.”
For most who hear you say this, all they want is for that person to be back here, with them. Instead, just listen to your friend.
- Sit there with them in their grief.
- Let them talk, or not. Let them cry, or not.
- Let them wonder why, and let them know you know that this sucks.
All in all, as a friend, you just want to help. That is amazing, and the effort you are already putting in to this by looking up articles like this and trying to really be there for your friend is inspiring, kind, and brave.
Just remember to ditch the platitudes, listen to your friend, talk about the one that was lost, remember the details and share them, and ultimately do whatever you can to help your friend down the grief path.
Everyone’s journey is different. All you can do is be a beacon of light when the road gets dark to remind them they aren’t alone, and that their grief is validated.