How to Offer Words of Sympathy
Get advice on how to comfort a grieving friend after he or she has lost a loved one.
Many people find it paralyzing to consider what to say to those grieving the loss of a loved one. “Our culture doesn’t train us for this. When there’s joy and happiness, we all know what to do. But grief is a more private and lonely emotion,” says Ginny Callaway, the author of A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help ($11, amazon.com). Callaway wrote the book after her 10-year-old daughter, Sara Jane, died in a car accident and she watched people struggle to comfort her. According to Callaway, this is how best to help a friend in mourning.
“Listening without judgment is perhaps the best thing to do, whether or not you know what to say,” says Callaway.
“Someone came over after my daughter died and said, ‘God wanted his little flower in heaven,’ ” says Callaway. “Although it was a lovely sentiment, a cliché is a conversation stopper.” It doesn’t encourage the grieving person to say more, at a time when you want to create opportunities for the person to talk and tell her story. Instead, ask open-ended questions that encourage conversation, such as “I’m sorry I didn’t know your mom better. Tell me what the two of you liked to do together.”
Don’t Focus on the Negative
You want to allow the person to cry and express her pain. But you don’t want to add to it by saying things like “How will we live without him?” It’s natural to feel this way, but a better approach is to say something like “She was so special. We’re all so lucky to have had her in our lives.”
If you live in the same town, go to the survivor’s home and be supportive, even if you don’t say much. That shows you care for and love the person, which is nourishing when someone is in pain. This also gives you a way to determine what needs to be done. “The whole idea behind keeping the survivor’s environment under control is so that she has nothing left to do but grieve,” says Callaway. “It’s similar to when a baby is born. You want to make it as easy as possible for the family to focus on the baby.” Right before Sara Jane’s car accident, Callaway had ordered a trampoline for her children. The box was sitting in the driveway when Sara Jane died. “My son’s Scout leader set it right up without my having to ask,” says Callaway. “It was immensely helpful.” Of course, you have to be mindful of boundaries. But making sure that there is toilet paper in the bathrooms and that the kitchen is clean probably won’t cross any lines.
Never Forget: The Deceased Live in Our Hearts
That means we think of them at particularly emotional times. In the case of a parent who has lost a child, that may be during the holidays or on the first day of school. For a spouse, that may be on a wedding anniversary. In all cases, emotions are heightened on the anniversary of the person’s passing. “These are good dates to send a card or leave a message saying that you, too, are having fond memories of the deceased.”