What grieving people need from you - Macleans.ca

What grieving people need from you

Promising to ‘be there’ doesn’t mean dropping off one casserole, then vanishing

What grieving people need from you

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When a friend’s son commits suicide or a co-worker’s sister dies, it’s hard to know what to say and do. Often, people worry they’re not a “huggy” enough person to be of comfort. But just reliably showing up is the first place to start, writes author Val Walker in a new book called The Art of Comforting: What To Say and Do For People In Distress.

Walker, who trains counsellors to help people deal with grief and loss, writes, “I’ve heard grieving and distraught people lament how others didn’t follow through with their promises, which hurt them more than anyone’s lack of affection or warmth. Their friendly, sunny friends who promised to ‘be there’ for them dropped off the face of the Earth after they dropped off their casseroles during the first week of the tragedy.”

A distressed person will be comforted if you tell them, “I can call you Monday night,” but then make sure you call. “People in distress suffer more when they are left in the dark about when contact will be made. No one wants to appear needy by having to call out for help.”

If you’re not the touchy-feely type, you can offer to walk their dog or pick up groceries. “The one who runs the errands is as comforting as the one who gives the hugs.” And if you’re not skilled at heart-to-heart talks, just show up and listen. Walker gives the example of a mother whose 14-year-old son committed suicide. “Two friends came to visit me and invited me to take a long walk with them. My friends only said about four sentences the whole evening. But in that silence I felt their love and care in waves of comfort streaming from their hearts.”

Walker believes silence is sometimes better than trying to fix the person’s problem. “We think helping someone in pain means helping them ‘get over’ the problem, fast.” But “healing means learning to live with loss, rather than getting over it completely,” she writes.

Another piece of advice: don’t try to put a person’s pain into perspective for them. Don’t say, for example, “You think your foreclosure was bad. The hurricane Katrina folks had it much worse than you.” She gives another example, a woman, Jan, recently divorced. At dinner, Jan’s friends chided her, “It’s lonelier being in a bad marriage than being single. You’re free now.” Walker writes, “Her friends might have meant well, but Jan got the message that her distressed feelings were unwarranted, and therefore she was not worthy of their sympathy.”

At work, comforting a colleague is a more “delicate process,” writes Walker. She writes about the woman who rushed to hug a co-worker who had just returned from a month-long bereavement leave. “[The bereaved co-worker] was absolutely frozen and barely moved her arms when I held her. I was so embarrassed that I quickly excused myself. I could hardly look her in the eyes and she avoided looking at me. I felt so shocked by her response to my hug that I ran out to my car in the parking lot to have a good little cry.”

A card or email might be more appropriate than physical contact at work. Walker suggests, “Send a ‘thinking of you’ card,” but beware of unhelpful platitudes such as ‘God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.’ Instead write, “It sounds like this is really hard.”

People who haven’t experienced a similar tragedy often retreat from offering comfort, afraid they won’t be able to empathize properly. Walker, who is divorced and childless, confesses that she used to lack confidence when comforting parents who had lost a child. She used to worry: “How dare I try to know the pain of parents whose children have died?” But now she shares the advice of Alicia Rasin, a victims’ advocate who works with parents of murdered children. Rasin, who is also childless, told Walker, “I let their sorrow touch my own sorrow—my sorrow about my dad who died, or my friend who is sick. We are all human and sorrow is in all of us. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say when someone is in pain, as long as you can say with all your heart, ‘I am right here with you.’ People will believe you care if you just show up, even if you don’t have much to say.”


What grieving people need from you

  1. The effect of small gestures cannot be underestimated. When a family member passed I had some friends who did some small errands for me and it was a tremendous help. Your mind can be overwhelmed by the smallest tasks in those times.

  2. I agree with the article completely, I know someone in toronto who does this voluntarily and listens to so many people at all times. He listens to people with small problems of families, youth, and even terminal patients with cancer. ALWAYS SMILING. His name is Mahesh Nileshwar and works for one of the big banks in toronto but he is always there to lend his shoulder when people need to cry.

  3. When friends and family are not there for you in these critical times of loss and immense pain, you lose respect for them and will forever see them in a different light.. As the article states……. show up, call, keep in touch, do those small gestures of support and compassion, send the card, make the phone call, be a gentle distraction.

  4. This is also true if you suffer a serious disease. I had hypermemsis gravidarum in my third pregnancy, 4 years ago, and am still struggling with my feelings of abondonment from so many of my friends. I was very sick and very alone, and few of my friends even called to see if I was OK. They literally dropped off the face of the earth, and when they did show up it was to tell me to eat crackers and ginger when I was being fed via IV and had lost 20 lbs. Ridiculous.

    The two friends who were my greatest support were the ones who came, week after week, listened, and asked what I needed. I love them both so dearly for it.

  5. It is crucial to have someone by you to help to get through the grief, take time to talk to them to make them feel better emotionally.

    Child Therapist SF

  6. I experienced the very same response from co-workers upon the sudden death of a close family member. No card – no donation – no attendance. Actions speak louder than words, and inaction spoke volumes to me. It made the pain of my loss worse, since I had been there for them when they were struck by a crisis. Shameful. Within a few months I left that workplace.

  7. I have yet to recieve a flower or card or worse yet my 22 yr olds ashes yet….and I am devastated…beside myself with a big open wound. His girlfriend at the time knew I had just left a relationship and was not settled ,so offered to hold them for me (this is after I had given her a 3rd of them,only to find out she was cheating on him with his best friend) . Its going on 3 yrs and I still do not have them ,I was kind on the most part,,,but now I am more than angry!How can anybody be so cruel,evil, and on top of it she is calling me mentally ill for getting upset about the events that followed after his death, she keeps putting me off and now she says "when she gets around to it she will drop them off on her time and all the possessions my son had that she offered to hold onto are apparently no longer…?How can I start the healing process when this "woman"has done everything in her power t make me look like a horrible person ,including telling me that I will probably lose his ashes?…This is killing me inside….

  8. Dealing with the recent loss of my brother I can appreciate this article. In a time of tragedy you really find out who your true friends are. The most difficult part is after the funeral when life goes back to normal and everyone goes away. It’s nice to just have someone listen or come to visit to just be with you. I liked what the article said about no one wanting to feel needy by reaching out; this is very true. I know for myself I do not want to feel like a burden to my friends, and I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable when I talk about my feelings, so it’s nice when people say I am here for you. I find the less words the better, all I needed to hear was I’m sorry and I’m here for you and know they meant it.

  9. When my dad died, I remember feeling so disappointed that some close friends did not come to his memorial service.  I assume they didn’t come because they were uncomfortable with the idea of seeing me grieving.  But it would have been so comforting just to see their faces at that service.  That’s all I wanted from them.  It’s so helpful to read an article like this because, when you don’t have a lot of experience with other people’s grief, it’s so hard to know what to do or say.  This article offered really great practical suggestions.

  10. Reading this article and hearing from other individuals’
    experiences, I must admit I have been so lucky as to never have lost anyone
    dear to me. My dog of 16 years was the closest human loss I have had. With that
    said, this article caught my attention mainly due to my partner. My partner is
    currently watching his second grandfather, in 6 months die from cancer. His
    first grandfather was a second father to him, and the grieving period was just
    coming to a close as we began to date. However, as we began to get closer his
    other grandfather became more ill.
    There has been many times, during the first few months of our relationship that
    I was uncertain if I was taking the right approach in comforting him. There
    were many nights I sat up talking with him, went for drives and let him cry.
    All the while though, I was nearly silent through all of it.  There were moments I felt guilty that I could
    not say or find the words to take away the pain he felt, and the pain he is so
    much dreading to feel again go away. I was scared of coming off cold, but also
    feared dismissing his pain as well. I expressed to him that I have never been
    in his situation, but I will do my best to listen and help whenever and however
    he needs. I know that letting someone grieve is important but I also felt a
    pressure to keep him happy and to keep his mind off of things. 
    After reading this article and after hearing various perspectives it is good to
    know that at least by staying by his side I am at least doing one thing right.
    I also feel that articles and discussion like this are very crucial to both those
    who have lost, and for individuals like myself that are trying to help but are
    not always sure how. As previously stated above, maybe some people are afraid
    because they don’t know how to help however by everyone sharing their
    perspectives like this, will assist us in assisting you.


  11. When my husband passed away five years ago after a relatively short battle with cancer, I experienced the greatest loss of my life to date. I will always be grateful for the support I received from my sister-in-law (my husband’s brother’s wife). She made a point of coming to see me every day and we would talk, laugh, cry together and sometimes, we would have coffee and just ‘be.’  I have since moved to a different community which is about 300 kms away.  Although we do  not see each other as much, she still calls me every second or third night to see how I am.  When someone is grieving, there is nothing you can do to take away the pain and the grieving doesn’t stop when the funeral is over….that’s when it begins.  You are faced with learning how to create your ‘new normal’ and you are just starting to realize that your life will never, ever be the same.  Just ‘being there’ for someone going through grief…no matter how long the journey…. is a wonderful gift and so appreciated!