Saturday, June 7, 2014

How to Help a Grieving Friend

June 7, 2014

Today my friend Julie sent me a message: "its time for me to get outta showering and leaving if you wanna meet up then give me a jingle!" She sends me little messages throughout the week. "what's your schedule like today? want to do coffee?" "im free for a couple of hours after 2. let me know if you want to get together."

It's nice, these frequent invitations to connect, because I don't always know that it's what I need. The majority of the time, like today, I don't feel up to it. "I'm kinda like can't move depressed," I answered her today.

"i knew!" she wrote. "i was getting ready and going to come to your house. you can answer if you want to." And I knew if I didn't answer the door when she arrived, if I just wasn't up for it, she'd be ok with that. But I did, and in her hands was a little "care package" (as she explained) with salad greens, vegetables already cut up and in little baggies, a bit of dressing, a tin of hot cocoa from Trader Joe's, some frozen cherries, and ready-to-eat oatmeal in a mason jar.

Last week she pulled up next to me in a parking spot and said "Wait! I have something for you." She opened her back door, dug around for a bit, and popped up with a container of fresh hummus. She's given me carrot soup when I seemed unable to make something for myself and chicken soup just because she had extra.

Little portions of ready to eat food is not something I would have ever thought to ask for when people say "Is there anything you need?"- but these well-timed gifts from my friend have been exactly the thing that got me through a rough day or a rough moment plenty of times since early March.

For this griever, Julie did and has continued to do exactly the right thing.

Rewind to my first week at my new job, the week after Gareth died. I had just met Julie and after telling her why I'd been absent for the past week she said, "Oh! I have a book you NEED to READ! It's about a woman who died and chose to come back and she describes what it's like on the other side and..." and I heard nothing else she said. I nodded my head politely but I was pissed. I was pissed and I knew I was never going to read some book about a lady who CHOSE to come back to life. Because does that mean that Gareth chose not to? And if he didn't, how come this lady gets to be alive still and Gareth doesn't? No, thank you. I don't want your f-----g book.

That's how I felt.

And when she delivered it the next day wrapped in a black plastic bag, I thanked her and told myself that burning someone else's property was not a nice thing to do. I shoved it under some papers below my desk instead and when she asked about it, I told her I "hadn't gotten around to it yet."

How could she have known I'd have such a reaction?

What exactly are you supposed to say to a friend when someone they love has died? What are you supposed to do? Even more important, perhaps, is the question what are you NOT supposed to do or say? It's a tricky thing, because we all experience grief so differently.

Julie admitted today that when it seemed I'd slipped back into a bit of a depression this past week, she didn't know exactly what to do. She googled "how to help a friend who's grieving" on the internet (which I think is the sweetest and kindest gesture) and mentioned that several things stuck with her.

"I read you're not supposed to say 'He's in a better place." This is true. It doesn't do much but make me mad. "I also read that you should say things like 'I'm coming over to drop some stuff off, and you can answer or not answer." That feels nice. Sometimes I'm up for a visit and sometimes, with no offense meant to the visitor, I'm not up for it. "I read that it's good for you to take the initiative, because the grieving person may not know what it is that they need or want." Well, now that you say it, that's exactly right. Wow. Where is she getting this stuff?

I found one article written by a therapist whose partner drowned in 2009. She does such a great job articulating what I could not, that I thought I'd paste it below for anyone who is wanting to understand his/her own grieving or the grieving process of a friend. (The original article can be found at


How to Help a Grieving Friend: 11 Things to Do When You're Not Sure What to Do

I've been a therapist for more than 10 years. I worked in social services for the decade before that. I knew grief. I knew how to handle it in myself, and how to attend to it in others. When my partner drowned on a sunny day in 2009, I learned there was a lot more to grief than I'd known.
Many people truly want to help a friend or family member who is experiencing a severe loss. Words often fail us at times like these, leaving us stammering for the right thing to say. Some people are so afraid to say or do the wrong thing, they choose to do nothing at all. Doing nothing at all is certainly an option, but it's not often a good one.

While there is no one perfect way to respond or to support someone you care about, here are some good ground rules.

#1 Grief belongs to the griever.
You have a supporting role, not the central role, in your friend's grief. This may seem like a strange thing to say. So many of the suggestions, advice and "help" given to the griever tells them they should be doing this differently, or feeling differently than they do. Grief is a very personal experience, and belongs entirely to the person experiencing it. You may believe you would do things differently if it had happened to you. We hope you do not get the chance to find out. This grief belongs to your friend: follow his or her lead.

#2 Stay present and state the truth.
It's tempting to make statements about the past or the future when your friend's present life holds so much pain. You cannot know what the future will be, for yourself or your friend -- it may or may not be better "later." That your friend's life was good in the past is not a fair trade for the pain of now. Stay present with your friend, even when the present is full of pain.
It's also tempting to make generalized statements about the situation in an attempt to soothe your friend. You cannot know that your friend's loved one "finished their work here," or that they are in a "better place." These future-based, omniscient, generalized platitudes aren't helpful. Stick with the truth: this hurts. I love you. I'm here.

#3 Do not try to fix the unfixable.
Your friend's loss cannot be fixed or repaired or solved. The pain itself cannot be made better. Please see #2. Do not say anything that tries to fix the unfixable, and you will do just fine. It is an unfathomable relief to have a friend who does not try to take the pain away.

#4 Be willing to witness searing, unbearable pain.
To do #4 while also practicing #3 is very, very hard.

#5 This is not about you.
Being with someone in pain is not easy. You will have things come up -- stresses, questions, anger, fear, guilt. Your feelings will likely be hurt. You may feel ignored and unappreciated. Your friend cannot show up for their part of the relationship very well. Please don't take it personally, and please don't take it out on them. Please find your own people to lean on at this time -- it's important that you be supported while you support your friend. When in doubt, refer to #1.

#6 Anticipate, don't ask.
Do not say "Call me if you need anything," because your friend will not call. Not because they do not need, but because identifying a need, figuring out who might fill that need, and then making a phone call to ask is light years beyond their energy levels, capacity or interest. Instead, make concrete offers: "I will be there at 4 p.m. on Thursday to bring your recycling to the curb," or "I will stop by each morning on my way to work and give the dog a quick walk." Be reliable.

#7 Do the recurring things.
The actual, heavy, real work of grieving is not something you can do (see #1), but you can lessen the burden of "normal" life requirements for your friend. Are there recurring tasks or chores that you might do? Things like walking the dog, refilling prescriptions, shoveling snow and bringing in the mail are all good choices. Support your friend in small, ordinary ways -- these things are tangible evidence of love.

Please try not to do anything that is irreversible -- like doing laundry or cleaning up the house -- unless you check with your friend first. That empty soda bottle beside the couch may look like trash, but may have been left there by their husband just the other day. The dirty laundry may be the last thing that smells like her. Do you see where I'm going here? Tiny little normal things become precious. Ask first.

#8 Tackle projects together.
Depending on the circumstance, there may be difficult tasks that need tending -- things like casket shopping, mortuary visits, the packing and sorting of rooms or houses. Offer your assistance and follow through with your offers. Follow your friend's lead in these tasks. Your presence alongside them is powerful and important; words are often unnecessary. Remember #4: bear witness and be there.

#9 Run interference.
To the new griever, the influx of people who want to show their support can be seriously overwhelming. What is an intensely personal and private time can begin to feel like living in a fish bowl. There might be ways you can shield and shelter your friend by setting yourself up as the designated point person -- the one who relays information to the outside world, or organizes well-wishers. Gatekeepers are really helpful.

#10 Educate and advocate.
You may find that other friends, family members and casual acquaintances ask for information about your friend. You can, in this capacity, be a great educator, albeit subtly. You can normalize grief with responses like,"She has better moments and worse moments and will for quite some time. An intense loss changes every detail of your life." If someone asks you about your friend a little further down the road, you might say things like, "Grief never really stops. It is something you carry with you in different ways."

#11 Love.
Above all, show your love. Show up. Say something. Do something. Be willing to stand beside the gaping hole that has opened in your friend's life, without flinching or turning away. Be willing to not have any answers. Listen. Be there. Be present. Be a friend. Be love. Love is the thing that lasts.


Another great article I found was 
I posted it below:

Supporting a Grieving Person

Helping Others Through Grief, Loss, and Bereavement

It’s often hard to know what to say or do when someone you care about is grieving. You may be afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making the person feel even worse. Or maybe you feel there’s little you can do to make things better. While you can’t take away the pain of the loss, you can provide much-needed comfort and support. There are many ways to help a grieving friend or family member, starting with letting the person know you care.

What you need to know about bereavement and grief

The death of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult experiences. The bereaved struggle with many intense and frightening emotions, including depression, anger, and guilt. Often, he or she feels isolated and alone in his or her grief, but having someone to lean on can help him or her through the grieving process.
Don’t let discomfort prevent you from reaching out to someone grieving. Now, more than ever, your support is needed. You might not know exactly what to say or what to do, but that’s okay. You don’t need to have answers or give advice. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there; your support and caring presence will help him or her cope with the pain and begin to heal.

Understanding the grieving process

The better your understanding of grief and how it is healed, the better equipped you’ll be to help a bereaved friend or family member:
  • There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages. It can be an emotional rollercoaster, with unpredictable highs, lows, and setbacks. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling the bereaved what he or she “should” be feeling or doing.
  • Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair, and fear are common. A grieving person may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at loved ones, or cry for hours on end. The bereaved need reassurance that what he or she feels is normal. Don’t judge them or take his or her grief reactions personally.
  • There is no set timetable for grieving. For many people, recovery after bereavement takes 18 to 24 months, but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter. Don’t pressure the bereaved to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow the healing process.

What to say to someone who has lost a loved one

It is common to feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who is grieving. Many people do not know what to say or do. The following are suggestions to use as a guide.
  • Acknowledge the situation. Example: "I heard that your_____ died." Use the word "died" That will show that you are more open to talk about how the person really feels.
  • Express your concern. Example: "I'm sorry to hear that this happened to you."
  • Be genuine in your communication and don't hide your feelings. Example: "I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care."
  • Offer your support. Example: "Tell me what I can do for you."
  • Ask how he or she feels, and don't assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day.
Source: American Cancer Society

Helping a grieving person tip 1: Listen with compassion

Almost everyone worries about what to say to a grieving person. But knowing how to listen is much more important. Oftentimes, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or mentioning the deceased person, but the bereaved need to feel that his or her loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and his or her loved one won’t be forgotten.
While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let the bereaved know he or she has permission to talk about the loss. Talk candidly about the person who died and don’t steer away from the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions—without being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express his or her feelings. Try simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?”
  • Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Let the grieving person know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with him or her over how he or she should or shouldn’t feel. The bereaved should feel free to express his or her feelings without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
  • Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
  • Let the bereaved talk about how his or her loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.
  • Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what he or she is feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. However, don’t give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to his or hers.

Comments to avoid when comforting the bereaved

  • "I know how you feel." One can never know how another may feel. You could, instead, ask your friend to tell you how he or she feels.
  • "It's part of God's plan." This phrase can make people angry and they often respond with, "What plan? Nobody told me about any plan."
  • "Look at what you have to be thankful for." They know they have things to be thankful for, but right now they are not important.
  • "He's in a better place now." The bereaved may or may not believe this. Keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked.
  • "This is behind you now; it's time to get on with your life." Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to getting on with because they feel this means "forgetting" his or her loved one. In addition, moving on is easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
  • Statements that begin with "You should" or "You will." These statements are too directive. Instead you could begin your comments with: "Have you thought about. . ." or "You might. . ."
Source: American Hospice Foundation

Helping a grieving person tip 2: Offer practical assistance

It is difficult for many grieving people to ask for help. They might feel guilty about receiving so much attention, fear being a burden, or be too depressed to reach out. You can make it easier for them by making specific suggestions—such as, “I’m going to the market this afternoon. What can I bring you from there?” or “I’ve made beef stew for dinner. When can I come by and bring you some?”
Consistency is very helpful, if you can manage it—being there for as long as it takes. This helps the grieving person look forward to your attentiveness without having to make the additional effort of asking again and again. You can also convey an open invitation by saying, “Let me know what I can do,” which may make a grieving person feel more comfortable about asking for help. But keep in mind that the bereaved may not have the energy or motivation to call you when he or she needs something, so it’s better if you take the initiative to check in.

Be the one who takes the initiative

There are many practical ways you can help a grieving person. You can offer to:
  • Shop for groceries or run errands
  • Drop off a casserole or other type of food
  • Help with funeral arrangements
  • Stay in his or her home to take phone calls and receive guests
  • Help with insurance forms or bills
  • Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
  • Watch his or her children or pick them up from school
  • Drive him or her wherever he or she needs to go
  • Look after his or her pets
  • Go with them to a support group meeting
  • Accompany them on a walk
  • Take them to lunch or a movie
  • Share an enjoyable activity (game, puzzle, art project)

Helping a grieving person tip 3: Provide ongoing support

Grieving continues long after the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have stopped. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person. But in general, grief lasts much longer than most people expect. Your bereaved friend or family member may need your support for months or even years.
  • Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with the grieving person, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Your support is more valuable than ever once the funeral is over, the other mourners are gone, and the initial shock of the loss has worn off.
  • Don’t make assumptions based on outward appearances. The bereaved person may look fine on the outside, while inside he or she is suffering. Avoid saying things like “You are so strong” or “You look so well.” This puts pressure on the person to keep up appearances and to hide his or her true feelings.
  • The pain of bereavement may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same. You don’t “get over” the death of a loved one. The bereaved person may learn to accept the loss. The pain may lessen in intensity over time, but the sadness may never completely go away.
  • Offer extra support on special days. Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend or family member. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever he or she needs.

Helping a grieving person tip 4: Watch for warning signs

It’s common for a grieving person to feel depressed, confused, disconnected from others, or like he or she is going crazy. But if the bereaved person’s symptoms don’t gradually start to fade—or they get worse with time—this may be a sign that normal grief has evolved into a more serious problem, such as clinical depression.
Encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if you observe any of the following warning signs after the initial grieving period—especially if it’s been over two months since the death.
  • Difficulty functioning in daily life
  • Extreme focus on the death
  • Excessive bitterness, anger, or guilt
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Inability to enjoy life
  • Hallucinations
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Constant feelings of hopelessness
  • Talking about dying or suicide
It can be tricky to bring up your concerns to the bereaved person as you don’t want to perceived as invasive. Instead of telling the person what to do, try stating your own feelings: “I am troubled by the fact that you aren’t sleeping—perhaps you should look into getting help.


Perhaps this hits home to you directly right at this moment. Perhaps you've been grieving the loss of our Gareth or of someone else. Perhaps you've been thrown by what to do for me or someone you know who is grieving.

Or maybe you're giving it a brief glance, remembering how and where to come back and read it should the time come.

And I hate to say that it will.

In the meantime, I've been very lucky to be surrounded by people doing their very best to walk through this with me. And I'm reminded how to be there for others, as I'm not the only one in the world suffering a great loss. In fact, I'm not the only one suffering the loss of Gareth Lochhead. Far from it.

And these lists, these tips and pointers of how to support one another, is exactly the kind of thing he would have loved reading and putting into practice. Thinking of you, Gareth. With love.


  1. Thank you, Bridget for posting this. Although the articles have similarities, they touch on different parts of grief and needs. Both the grieving persons and supporting family and friends can benefit from this.

  2. Hi Bridget. Thank you for sharing my article - so glad you found it useful. Much love to you, and to your Gareth.

    ~ Megan

  3. Oh, Megan- I can't tell you what a gift you've been to me. You have no idea. (or maybe you do). I purchased your audio program and have been listening to it as I try to go to sleep. Last night was the meditation on acknowledging how heavy it can feel to "try to grieve perfectly" or "the right way."

    You are saying everything to me that I find helpful and comforting. I'm a bit isolated over here in South Korea and the fact that I can listen to you at any time and have someone right there to help me walk through this whenever I want/need is a miracle.

    And you sound a bit like my good friend Maud, which is lovely.

    Thanks again. I hold you in the greatest place of love.

    Thank you again.