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9 Ways to help a grieving friend

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Valeria Schettino / Vento / Getty Images
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These small supportive actions really make a difference.

Walking through the office one day a few years ago, I spied a business colleague sitting at her computer. Her father had just died and it was her first day back. My heart seized up and I suddenly found myself turning on my heel and choosing another path rather than face her. It was a cowardly moment that, unfortunately, is not an uncommon response to a friend’s loss. Luckily, I managed to collect myself later in the day and did the right thing by stopping by her desk to express my sympathies.

Why is the simple act of showing concern at a time of such deep need so hard for many of us? “We tend to be very removed from death in this country, and very afraid of it,” explains Florence Isaacs, author of My Deepest Sympathies and blogger at Sincere Condolences on Legacy. It used to be that death was more a part of our everyday lives. Back in the day, people usually died at home. Today, people live longer, die later, and often pass away in hospitals or hospices. This makes us feel much more tentative about how to handle grief. “We feel uncomfortable and are afraid to say something wrong,” explains Isaacs. Unfortunately, that often means we say nothing at all.

Here are some of the best ways experts suggest you support your friend during this most difficult time …

Send a meaningful sympathy note

Emails are great when you are arranging a lunch date, but the death of a friend’s loved one demands more effort and intimacy. A handwritten note or card — so rare these days — will mean so much more to the bereaved than an e-message. All you have to do is write a sentence or two and you have gone a long way towards making your friend feel supported. “Sincerity is the key,” says Isaacs who recommends mentioning the deceased’s name or relationship. For example, writing, “I’m so sorry to hear about your father,” is better than the more generic, “I am so sorry to hear about your loss.” Add something simple such as, “You’re in my prayers,” or “I am thinking of you.” That is often all that needs to be said. If you buy a commercial condolence card, don’t just sign it. Take a moment to add a personal message of your own. “By putting yourself out a bit more, you are showing respect,” says Isaacs.

Make a call — but only if you’re very close

Picking up the phone can be a wonderful way to connect with your friend and let her know that you are there for her and ready to listen. A dear friend will expect a call like this and will appreciate hearing your voice. If you are not terribly tight, however, Isaacs recommends a note over a call. This gives the bereaved the chance to absorb your thoughts when he or she is ready and on her own terms, not just when she is forced into it because the phone happens to ring.

Don’t presume you know how the bereaved feels

A friend whose husband died after a long and unpleasant illness told me that she actually felt relief — and that’s okay. She was, therefore, not comforted by people who insisted she must be devastated. Similarly, another person might be offended if it was assumed that the passing of a chronically ill loved one was “for the best.” For this reason, you should avoid transferring your own thoughts and feelings to the bereaved. Everyone needs to go through their grieving period in their own way, and it will be a different journey for each person. Respect that.

Really listen to your friend

Instead of making yourself the center of the conversation, make sure your friend has the space to communicate her own feelings. “This can be a real gift to the grieving person,” says Isaacs who suggests opening a conversation with a simple question such as, “Tell me how you’re managing.” In this way, you are able to express concern but you are leaving the response open ended so that your friend can talk. Once she starts to open up, short encouraging phrases like, “Oh, gee” or “Yes” indicate that you’re listening. You don’t need to feel that you have to fill in the blanks or do a lot of talking yourself. “Encouraging the bereaved to talk about her feelings is a very healthy thing to do,” says Isaacs.

Attend the funeral

You cannot fix a death. You cannot take away someone’s distress. Sometimes you can’t even offer any meaningful comfort. But you can show up and you can psychically be there for a friend. Attending the funeral shows support. It is a tangible way to demonstrate that you care. When my stepfather passed away, I was so impressed by all the people who came to the funeral to offer their sympathy. Some of my friends, who had never met my stepfather, but wanted to support me, came by train from hours away. I felt so happy that they had made the effort to be with me. Seeing their faces there filled me with comfort and made me feel like my pain was shared with them, and therefore easier to bear.

Share good memories

It can be very reassuring to hear stories about a loved one. If you knew the deceased, your friend will appreciate hearing those remembrances. Find the right moment to share them with her. They can help to lift some of the heaviness in her heart.

Consider sending tangible signs of your concern

This could include flowers, food, or contributions to a charity of importance to the deceased. (Though keep in mind, at a Jewish funeral, sending flowers is not generally appropriate.) Take a look at the obituary, which also mentions charities that the family has selected, or call the funeral home for the information.

Offer specific help

It can feel insincere to toss off a sentence like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” Your friend will have a hard time thinking of anything for you to do, and your offer will fall flat. Instead, come up with some things you know you could do and ask, “Can I pick the kids up from school?” or “Can I bring food?” Concrete suggestions are the best, and may even spur your friend to think of some other chores you can tackle if these don’t fit the bill.

Don’t forget about her when the funeral ends

Grief goes on long after the flurry of cards and calls has ended. Just a phone call to check in can remind your friend that you care. “Invite her out to lunch or to a movie — a happy movie!” suggests Issacs. “Encourage her to get involved again in things she likes to do.” And don’t forget the special anniversaries (birthdays, deaths). You may worry that you shouldn’t remind your friend of a painful time, but your friend is not going to forget the date anytime soon, according to Isaacs, who to this day is thankful for the kindness of a business colleague of her deceased husband who writes to her every year on the anniversary of his passing just to say hello. “Sometimes he doesn’t even mention Harvey, but I know why he is writing to me, and I always appreciate it,” she says.

The bottom line is that, even at a time when you feel helpless in the face of tragedy, you can make a difference. Your role is to accept whatever your friend feels and to make a continuous effort to offer support and demonstrate caring. You may be surprised how powerful these simple acts of kindness can be.

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