What To Do (And What Not to Do) When Someone is Grieving

Every few weeks I decide to stop posting articles about grief and my grieving process. When one talks, the words dissipate into the atmosphere and are soon forgotten. When one writes, the words last until the paper is lost or destroyed. But when one posts to a blog on the internet, the words are eternal. And I’m not sure showing such vulnerability forever is healthy. As I gather strength and courage to face the challenges of my new life as a woman alone, as I change and grow into the person I will need to become, the vulnerable me of these grieving years will still exist in cyberspace. I don’t know how much this ever-living past will shadow my future; at the very least, it will be a perpetual reminder of a very dark time.

But life doesn’t seem to want me to give up these posts quite yet. Today’s decision to stop posting was forestalled by an email from a grieving friend who thanked me for voicing what she could no longer say. Any mention of her grief worried her family, and they suggested therapy so often, she now hides her grief from them. And if she writes about grief, relatives call up with advice about moving on or looking for someone new.

People often worry about what to say to someone who is grieving, but they should be more worried about what not to say. Saying almost any heartfelt words will do. We bereft see beyond the sometimes bumbling, often touching attempts to breach the grief gap, and we appreciate the effort.

What we don’t appreciate and have no use for is advice. Generally, the people who offer advice have not a clue what we are going through, so it seems to them a simple matter of just moving on, and they are quite free with suggestions of how to accomplish this. (I cannot think of a single instance where someone who suffered a grievous loss offered me advice, probably because they know how unwelcome and unproductive it would be.)

When I started writing about grief, the whole point was just to say how I felt so others would know that what they are feeling isn’t abnormal even though it feels dreadfully abnormal. I never asked for advice. I never wanted advice. I simply laid out my feelings. And yet I got advice. I tried to be kind and understanding, realizing that the advice-givers felt helpless and wanted to do something to ease my pain, but the truth is, advice does more damage than good. As with my grieving friend, so often the only way we bereft have of staving off advice is to hide our grief, and that is not healthy for anyone.

So, what can you do to help when someone you knows loses a spouse or a child to death?

1. Do something tangible. Offer to clean the house, take care of the kids, take the bereft to lunch, go grocery shopping. Almost as useless as advice is the typical, “Call me if you need help.” How is a person who is totally devastated by grief supposed to find the energy to call? You call. Don’t leave it up to them. And don’t leave it open ended with a “Let me know what I can do.” Be specific. “I’m going to the grocery store. Do you need anything? Milk? Coffee?” or “You’ve had a lot of people tramping through your house. Can I help clean up?” The best thing anyone did for me was clean the house before I moved. I will never forget that, will appreciate it as long as I live.

2. Let the person talk. Don’t try to make it better. Don’t offer advice. Simply listen. A woman I knew casually invited me to lunch, and she asked questions about him, let me talk, listened. It made me feel less alone, less of a pariah.

3. After the first month, the thing that helped me most was sharing stories with other bereft. (In the beginning, the whole thing was so overwhelming, I couldn’t deal with anyone else’s pain; I couldn’t even deal with my own.) As depressing as it was to find out that people still had occasional grief upsurges after ten years or that they never stopped missing their loved one, it helped knowing that others had gone through the same thing I was experiencing, and it helped knowing what I was up against. But if you haven’t suffered a similar loss, please do not talk about the death of your 100-year-old grandmother, or your dog, or your cousin. Even though these losses are important to you, they don’t offer any comfort to someone who has just lost the love of her life, especially if he died at a relatively young age.

4. Always, a shoulder to cry on and a comforting hug are welcome, and are worth a million times more than advice. Even better, cry with us. A few days after my life mate/soul mate died, I stopped by the grocery store where he and I shopped. The clerk asked where he was, and when I told her, she hugged me and cried with me. Not enough tears had been shed for him — no amount of tears will ever be enough—so those tears gave me comfort. His life — and death — shouldn’t pass lightly. No one’s should.