The do’s and don’ts of interacting with a grieving friend
Grief is a complicated process. My mom passed away almost three years ago, in January of 2019, and over the past three years, for the most part, I’ve avoided reflecting on my grief. But through it all, something that I haven’t forgotten is how other people have reacted to the news, how they have interacted with me and what they have chosen to say to me. Though I can’t speak for everyone experiencing grief, I can draw upon my own experiences to suggest how to best interact with a friend going through grief. So here’s my best attempt at outlining what you should — and shouldn’t — say to someone experiencing grief.
The phrase that I have always had the hardest time with is, “I’m sorry.” I always felt like I had to respond to this by saying, “It’s okay,” but it was never okay, so I usually just nodded in awkward silence. I’ve found that the best way to approach this is to allow the person experiencing grief to be able to respond with a “thank you” instead of making them feel like they need to say things are “okay.” A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” can be an appropriate response, or, “I’m sorry they can’t be here with you.”
I always felt my stomach drop when someone would tell me that my mom was “in a better place.” How could anywhere be better than being with her family? I’ve also had people tell me that this is all “part of a plan” or that “everything happens for a reason.” This can be extremely confusing to hear; these words downplay the person’s emotions instead of validating what they are feeling. I remember hearing this and doing mental gymnastics to try to reason how losing my mom could be part of a better plan in my life. In the end, that line of thinking only hurt me and made my grieving process more confusing. While some may find this rhetoric to be comforting, it is best to avoid it altogether, as it can potentially harm the person experiencing grief.
Additionally, avoid putting the focus on you as the responder. When someone is opening up to you about their grief, they want to be heard, not lectured. Comparing their experiences to your own and creating a “grief Olympics” draws unnecessary focus to yourself. However, I would acknowledge an exception to this: During the months following my mom’s passing, I received a few messages from other people my age who had also lost a parent and offered themselves as a resource for someone to talk to. I appreciated these messages; I felt a sense of community through our shared experience, through someone who could try to understand what I was feeling. At the same time, don’t ever expect a response — a person going through grief has no obligation to reply, and they may not feel ready to share how they are feeling.
I understand that grief is complicated, and people often do not know how to react or how to best offer support. Many may feel a need to offer help to a friend experiencing grief. Help in itself is not a bad thing, but how it is approached is important. Offer help as an if, not a what. Instead of saying, “What can I do to help?” (which puts the pressure on the person to respond and draws focus on you), try, “If there is anything I can do to help, let me know.” This way, the person feels supported without being expected to give a response right away.
Most importantly, give them a space to grieve. If they need some time alone, give them that time. I often found that when I started to be around friends again, there was a level of uncertainty and awkwardness; I didn’t want to bring anything up because I didn’t want to make things weird or make others uncomfortable. It’s important to give a friend space to grieve, either alone or with others — even among a group of friends, they should feel comfortable to share emotions in a space where they can be listened to and supported.
I acknowledge that the vast majority of people who have spoken to me about my loss have been well-intentioned. Grief is difficult to understand unless you’ve been through it; even among those experiencing grief, there may be many disagreements about what is best to say and what shouldn’t be said. No one is perfect, and no one is ever going to be able to have a perfect response. In the end, it’s not about saying the right thing — it’s about being there for somebody. You aren’t going to magically cure a friend’s grief with a phrase. Instead, offering yourself as someone who can listen and acknowledge all of the complex emotions they are feeling will allow them to better process and feel heard. Don’t stress about what to say or what not to say to someone experiencing grief. Often, just listening is enough.
If you have any feedback on the Forum section as a whole, please leave your thoughts in this form.
Editor’s note: As of Wednesday, 11/03/21 at 8:42 p.m., this story has been updated to include resources for those dealing with grief. Those resources are below.
The COVID Grief Network connects young adults grieving illness or death due to COVID-19 as well as providing one-on-one and group support from volunteer grief workers. They can be reached at covidgriefnetwork.org/.
Mental Health Services at Habif Health and Wellness offers counseling services to students, which can be utilized for any reason. You can reach Mental Health Services at https://students.wustl.edu/mental-health-services/ or through individual Habif portals.