“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.” ~ Henri Nouwen
“Where grief is fresh, any attempt to divert it only irritates.” ~ Samuel Johnson
When someone we love is experiencing grief we can’t help but feel bad also. While that’s nice, it doesn’t really help the other person. I know grief can feel awkward and overwhelming, and because its uncomfortable often we run from it instead of being there for those we love.
Often, I hear from clients that when they are grieving it makes the situation worse when they have to manage the well intentioned yet unhelpful and inappropriate responses of others.
Here are some tips for proper grief etiquette so you never have to feel adrift again. With these Do’s and Don’ts you can show up fully and be a comfort in a time of emotional need.
Before we begin, I want to give a big shout out to Nithya Shanti for his contribution to this etiquette list.
4 Big Grief Don’ts
- Don’t ask what happened. I know it’s a automatic human response to want to know, but the grieving person has probably had to repeat the story of what happened dozens of times. You will find out in due course. In addition, don’t deliberate on other painful areas like how it happened, how it could have been avoided, or whose fault it is. This only stirs up their painful memories repeatedly. It is neither kind nor sensitive. If they want to share the story with you, they will do so themselves at the right time without your prodding.
- Don’t say, “If there is anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask”: I know this is the absolute most common thing to say. It sounds helpful, yet it is not. Why? Because when you say this you put all the burden on the grieving person to reach out for help. Often from that dark place they have neither the energy nor clarity to ask for help.
- Don’t ask, “What are you going to do now?”: Again, a very common response that seems helpful. However, in reality it shifts the grieving person’s attention to the uncertainty of their future and makes it seem like they should be practical instead of emotional. Even though it’s overwhelming, by staying present and heart-centered you allow space for them to feel their feelings instead of plan their next step. One is immensely valuable and the other derails their healing process.
- Don’t be completely absent or silent. Not showing up, not acknowledging when someone has lost a loved one because you feel awkward is another inappropriate response. Of course, there is nothing you can do. Of course, you can’t make them all better. Don’t use those as excuses to let yourself off the hook. They notice who showed up and who bailed on them in their time of need. Don’t go into it with the goal of fixing anything, just be attentive and present. That’s not only all you can do, it’s enough.
4 Big Grief Do’s
- Show up, listen, and hold the space. Just be around. Be available. Just sitting with the grieving person and allowing them to share whatever comes to mind is healing. They may not have much to say, yet need you there to hold the space as they go through the waves of sadness that crash over them again and again. If appropriate hold their hand or hug them as physical touch is very connecting. Your goal should be to offer presence and support, not conversation or processing. Pure listening without suggestions and advice is incredibly healing. Your undistracted presence is the greatest gift.
- Share your personal memories of the deceased. It’s incredibly meaningful to hear how their loved one touched your life in memorable and significant ways. It expands and enriches their narrative of how this life contributed to the larger tapestry of life as a whole. It reduces the sense that their loved one died before their time or that everything is meaningless. They begin to realize that more important than the days in our life is the life in our days. Thinking of a person in terms of their qualities also enables us to look beyond the loss of their physical body. Bodies are temporary. Qualities are forever and live on through each of us.
- When appropriate, share how you dealt with your grief. If you have ever suffered loss you can share your insights on how you dealt with it. Keep it real. Keep it practical. Share with empathy and without expecting that your experience will necessarily be the same as theirs. Also, you might wait until they ask you about your experience before sharing. They will let you know when they are ready to hear what you have to say.
- Do what you can without being asked! Show up. Help out. Arrange food. Take phone calls. Lend your car. Make logistical decisions. Host visiting family or relatives. Allow the grieving person to “just be” as much as possible and take on as many of their responsibilities as you reasonably can. Actions speak louder than words.
The absolute best way to be helpful during times of grief is to be ready. Look over these Do’s and Don’ts and think about how you might put them into action when the time comes. By mentally preparing now, you’ll feel less overwhelmed, which allows you to show up much more fully for someone who needs you during a dark time in their life.