- Check-in regularly. Yes, it’s great that you showed up for the funeral and brought a dish to share at the wake, but when it comes to being supportive of a grieving person, don’t leave your involvement there. You may feel awkward about reaching out weeks or months later, but trust me: it makes a big difference. When my father passed away I dreaded the thought of spending time with friends and family because I would have to answer questions like “How are you?” again and again. Sometimes I just wanted people to stop asking me how I was doing and talk to me about their lives instead. By giving others a break from having to be strong, they will appreciate your willingness to take on that role while they process their grief.
- Don’t be afraid to ask them how they are doing either, especially if they seem down or withdrawn. While unwanted sympathy may not be helpful in the early stages of coping with trauma (Bauer & Amsellem, 2006), there is still comfort in knowing that someone is thinking about you as you work through difficult times (Miller & Krieger 2015). Although letting someone know that you care can be difficult for both parties involved at first, being mindful of where someone is emotional can go a long way towards strengthening your bond as a friend and supporter.
Offer to help.
If you offer to help someone with something, be specific. Showing up on the day they need help and asking, “What can I do?” is frustrating and annoying when they’re overwhelmed. Instead, say “I’m coming over at 3 tomorrow and would like to know what I can help you with during that time.” Then when you show up, it’s obvious what to do next.
Also, don’t try to fix everything for them. When a friend had just lost a parent, she didn’t need anyone fixing anything for her; she just needed people who could sit with her while she went through the motions of everyday life. Also don’t overstay your welcome. Know when it’s time to go back home so the person has space to themselves again.
Perhaps most importantly: Don’t tell them what they should do about their situation! If your friend is grieving or experiencing some other kind of loss (job loss, betrayal by a partner), understand that no one knows how they feel or how they should deal with their feelings except them! Your best approach is not telling them what they should do but simply being there as much or as little as your friend wants you there.
Compassion is an essential quality to have when helping others through difficult times. Compassion is not the same as sympathy: it’s the ability to understand another’s suffering in a way that allows you to feel and experience it for yourself. Being able to empathize with someone and acknowledge their pain will help them more than saying “things will get better soon.”
How do you show compassion?
The first step is listening. Listening doesn’t mean just hearing what they’re saying; it means taking in every word, listening with all your senses, and not letting any distractions get in the way of what your friend or loved one is trying to communicate with you. If you can truly listen, then understanding their feelings will come more naturally. Validating those feelings shows them that you hear them and are really listening.
While validating their feelings, don’t be afraid to offer assistance. However, make sure not to push too hard or insist that they take your help if they’re not ready or don’t want it. They may just need a shoulder to cry on while they get certain things off their chest before taking action on whatever problem they’re facing.
Some things you can offer are:
- Helping with daily chores (groceries/laundry) so they can focus on themselves
- Encourage them to seek professional help
Avoid being judgemental.
Practicing empathy and compassion can greatly enhance your ability to support others. You may need to make a conscious effort to be less judgemental, but it’s worth it. If you find yourself struggling with your reactions to others in difficult times, being curious about where those reactions come from can be helpful. It may help to remember that people rarely behave in ways they don’t think are good or right; rather, they’re often doing the best they can given their circumstances and abilities.
Instead of trying to change or fix others’ behavior, try listening deeply and thoughtfully, offering kind words of comfort when appropriate. For example: “It sounds like this is really hard for you right now.” Or: “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
Listen when it’s wanted and needed.
It’s hard to know what to say or do when someone you love is in pain. We all want to help our friends, family members, and other loved ones feel better as quickly as possible. However, sometimes the things we think will help just make people feel worse.
Here are some tips on how to listen and be supportive when someone tells you about a difficult time:
- Don’t interrupt the person who is talking. If you have something to say, wait until they’re finished. Your turn will come later in the conversation.
- Don’t give advice unless it’s been asked for (and even then, tread carefully). Whether they’re dealing with a breakup or an illness or the death of a loved one, their feelings right now may be too overwhelming for them to process your sage wisdom. They don’t need you making assumptions about how they should feel or where they should go from here right now—they already feel overwhelmed by that internal struggle enough as it is!
- Don’t tell them how you would deal with the situation. People usually don’t want advice; they want someone who will take an interest in how they’re feeling and let them know that their feelings make sense given the situation..
- Ask questions about what’s going on if you aren’t sure why it’s so upsetting to them—Don’t assume that whatever happened must not have been that bad. Not everyone processes information in the same way—what might seem like a “small” thing could be quite upsetting for another person!
Validate and acknowledge their feelings.
- Acknowledge that they are in pain. Use words like “I’m sorry you’re going through this. This must be really tough for you.”
- Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings. Do not say things like “It could be worse, and at least the kids are fine.”
- Don’t put the focus on yourself and compare their situation with your own, even if it appears similar. Do not say things like “I know how you feel because my grandmother died three years ago on a Friday after a long illness, too, so I know what it’s like for you right now.” You may think this is helpful, but such comparisons tend to minimize someone else’s pain or change the focus from the person who needs help to yourself and your own pain or experiences.
- Avoid saying anything definite about why things happen which can imply that there is a reason for it (e.g., God had a plan) or why they deserved it (e.g., they weren’t very nice to their parents).
Understand that everyone deals with grief differently.
There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. We all have our own unique processes, and it’s important to remember that it’s not up to anyone but ourselves (or the person we’re grieving for) to determine what’s “right.” This is also true for our friends and family members who are going through loss—not everyone will approach grief in the same way.
Some people want space during a difficult time, while others seek out constant company. Some people talk about their feelings, while others may prefer not to speak about them. Both approaches are okay; you can’t force someone into dealing with their feelings in a way that doesn’t feel natural and comfortable for them.
While supporting others through difficult times can be challenging, it’s still important. For example, you can check in regularly with the person who is grieving and offer to help with specific tasks. You should also show compassion and avoid being judgemental. Listen when it’s wanted and needed, validate and acknowledge their feelings, and remember that everyone deals with grief differently.