10 Specific Suggestions for How to Help a Grieving Friend – by Howard Whitman

grief wallpaper

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Keys to Happiness, an anthology of articles published in 1954.

Most of us want to be helpful when grief strikes a friend, but often we don’t know how. We may end up doing nothing because we don’t know the right — and helpful — things to say and do. Because that was my own experience recently, I resolved to gather pointers which might be useful to others as well as myself.

Ministers, priests, and rabbis deal with such situations every day. I went to scores of them, of all faiths, in all parts of the country.

Here are some specific suggestions they made:

1. Don’t try to “buck them up.”

This surprised me when the Rev. Arthur E. Wilson of Providence, RI mentioned it. But the others concurred. It only makes your friend feel worse when you say, “Come now, buck up. Don’t take it so hard.”

A man who has lost his wife must take it hard (if he loved her). “Bucking him up” sounds as though you are minimizing his loss. But the honest attitude, “Yes, it’s tough, and I sure know it is,” makes your friend feel free to express grief and recover from it. The “don’t take it so hard” approach deprives him of the natural emotion of grief.

2. Don’t try to divert them.

Rabbi Martin B. Ryback of Norwalk, Conn., pointed out that many people making condolence calls purposely veer away from the subject. They make small talk about football, fishing, the weather — anything but the reason for their visit.

The rabbi calls this “trying to camouflage death.” The task of the mourner, difficult as it is, is to face the fact of death, and go on from there.

“It would be far better,” Rabbi Ryback suggested, “to sit silently and say nothing than to make obvious attempts to distract.

The sorrowing friend sees through the effort to divert him. When the visitor leaves, reality hits him all the harder.”

3. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has passed away.

Well-intentioned friends often shy away from mentioning the deceased. The implication is that the whole thing is too terrible to mention.

“The helpful thing,” advised Rabbi Henry E. Kagan of Mount Vernon, N.Y., “is to talk about the person as you knew him in the fullness of life, to recreate a living picture to replace the picture of death.”

Once Rabbi Kagan called on a woman who had lost her brother. “I didn’t know your brother too well,” he said. “Tell me about him.” The woman started talking and they discussed her brother for an hour. Afterward she said, “I feel relieved now for the first time since he died.”

4. Don’t be afraid of causing tears.

When a good friend of mine lost a child I said something which made his eyes fill up. “I put my foot in it,” I said, in relating the incident to the Rev. D. Russell Hetsler of Brazil, Ind.

“No, you didn’t,” he replied.

“You helped your friend to express grief in a normal, healthy way. That is far better than to stifle grief when friends are present, only to have it descend more crushingly when one is all alone.”

Fear of causing tears, probably more than anything else, makes people stiff and ineffective. Visiting a friend who has lost his wife, they may be about to mention a ride in the country when they remember the man’s wife used to love rides in the country. They don’t dare speak of peonies because they were her favorite flower. So they freeze up.

“They really are depriving their friend of probably the greatest help they could give him,” Pastor Hetsler commented. “That is, to help him experience grief in a normal way and get over it.”

Medical and psychological studies back up the pastor’s contention that expressing grief is good and repressing it is bad.

“If a comment of yours brings tears,” he concluded, “remember — they are healthy tears.”

5. Let them talk.

“Sorrowing people need to talk,” explained the Rev. Vern Swartsfager of San Francisco. “Friends worry about their ability to say the right things. They ought to be worrying about their ability to listen.

If the warmth of your presence can get your friend to start talking, keep quiet and listen — even though he repeats the same things a dozen times. He is not telling you news but expressing feelings that need repetition. Pastor Swartsfager suggested a measuring stick for the success of your visit:“If your friend said a hundred words to your one, you’ve helped a lot.”

6. Reassure — don’t argue.

“Everybody who loses a loved one has guilt feelings — they may not be justified but they’re natural,” Rabbi Joseph R. Narot of Miami pointed out. A husband feels he should have been more considerate of his wife; a parent feels he should have spent more time with his child; a wife feels she should have made fewer demands on her husband. The yearning, “If only I had not done this, or done that — if only I had a chance to do it now,” is a hallmark of grieving.

These feelings must work their way out. You can give reassurance. Your friend must slowly come to the realization that he or she was, in all probability, a pretty good husband, wife, or parent.

7. Communicate — don’t isolate.

Too often a person who has lost a loved one is overwhelmed with visitors for a week or so; then the house is empty. Even good friends sometimes stay away, believing that people in sorrow “like to be alone.”

“That’s the ‘silent treatment,’” remarked Father Thomas Bresnahan of Detroit. “There’s nothing worse.” Our friend has not only lost his loved one — he has lost us too.

It is in the after-period, when all the letters of sympathy have been read and acknowledged and people have swung back into daily routine, that friends are needed most.

Keep in touch, Father Bresnahan urges. See your friends more often than you did before. See him for any purpose — for lunch, for a drive in the country, for shopping, for an evening visit. He has suffered a deep loss. Your job is to show him, by implication, how much he still has left. Your being with him is a proof to him that he still has resources.

8. Perform some concrete act.

The Rev. William B. Ayers of Wollaston, MA told me of a sorrowing husband who lost all interest in food until a friend brought over his favorite dish and simply left it there at suppertime. “That’s a wonderful way to help, by a concrete deed which in itself may be small yet carried the immense implication that you care,” Pastor Ayers declared.

We should make it our business, when a friend is in sorrow, to do at least one practical, tangible act of kindness. Here are some to choose from: run errands with your car, take the children to school, bring in a meal, do the dishes, make necessary phone calls, pick up mail at the office, help acknowledge condolence notes, shop for the groceries.

9. Swing into action.

Action is the symbol of going on living.

By swinging into action with your friend, whether at his hobby or his work, you help build a bridge into the future. Perhaps it means painting the garage with him, or hoeing the garden

In St. Paul, Minn., the Rev. J.T. Morrow told me of a man who had lost a son. The man’s hobby had been refinishing furniture. When he called on him, Pastor Morrow said, “Come on, let’s go down to the basement.” They sanded a table together. When Pastor Morrow left, the man said, “This is the first time I’ve felt I could go on living.”

Sorrowing people, Pastor Morrow pointed out, tend to drop out of things. They’re a little like the rider who has been thrown from a horse. If they are to ride again, better get them back on the horse quickly.

10. “Get them out of themselves,”

…advised Father James Keller, leader of the Christophers. Once you have your friend doing things for himself, his grief is nearly cured. Once you have him doing things for others, it is cured.

Grief runs a natural course. It will pass. But if there is only a vacuum behind it, self-pity will rush to fill it. To help your friend along the normal course of recovery, guide him to a new interest.

Volunteer work for charity, enrollment in a community group to help youngsters, committee work at church or temple are ways of getting people “out of themselves.”

If you and I, when sorrow strikes our friends, follow even a few of these pointers, we will be helpful.

Source: AFM


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15 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Baby Boomers and More and commented:

    This fabulous article really captures the essence of what those grieving need from those with whom they’re acquainted. It also helps those uncomfortable with the topic of death to understand that there are many ways to lighten the emotional load for the person who is grieving. The 11th suggestion I would offer is this: If you’re with someone who has recently suffered a loss and you don’t know what to say; you feel any words you offer couldn’t possibly make a difference; offer a hug. Your sincere intentions will transfer to them and just might provide them with the assurance that you acknowledge their grief and want them to know that they are not alone. Thank you Howard Whitman for offering this article to us.

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  2. Thank you for this valuable guide. As an Interfaith Minister I have many occasions to be mindful of the blessing in just being present to the grieving person; creating a compassionate container where feelings can be expressed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for putting this together. I live with a severe life-threatening auto-immune disease and you’ve nailed it. You have to acknowledge where a person is. You can’t gloss over that. Pretend. Moreover, through listening, you are putting the ball in their court and letting them express themselves. A few years ago, I was told that we have “two ears and one mouth.” WE also have two eyes one mouth. I can talk underwater but am trying to improve my listening skills. We all have so much to learn. xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have been a deacon in my church for over 20 years and have experienced the grief of many including my own. The ten points above are very good, but remember everyone is a different individual. If there is nothing to say, just a hug and “I am so sorry” is sufficient. Listening is also a good idea, because they will in most cases give you something to say and comment on, such as “I surely understand”. It is always appropriate to pray before approaching them and the Lord will speak through you to them. And always pray with them to let them know the Lord is there for them.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks. We worry what to say, etc, out of concern for ourselves, rather than the grieving friend, and avoiding the emotions or avoiding talking about what happened seem for our own convenience, and this seems to be the most common error we can avoid by thinking. We don’t know what to say or how to say the right thing because its not about saying the right thing, and not about our saying or doing, but about our friend. “Be there” seems the good advice, and that includes listening. And I like the above advices of getting the guy back doing and then caring for others. Sorrow is sweet, in a way, since the loss cannot be undone by not feeling. Sorrow or active depression is the process of our adjusting to the new condition. Permanently inconsolable is what my cat Mr. Black was when he lost his friend Mr. Grey, who we thought to have been eaten by a coyote. “We’ll be sad together” I would tell Mr. Black. But then the emaciated cat turned up after 2 weeks, and it was like a dream too good to be true, like the resurrection. He went from permanently inconsolable to happy in a new way, with a new appreciation of his friend, with whom he has lived from kittenhood. We do not appreciate what we have till we lose them, but it is all a transitory gift which we call “loss” as if reality owed them to us- that is one thing good to say- called “taking for granted” the gift of the Creation (verb and noun).

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