You can never truly know the grief of another human being. But there are things you can do to help them deal with the pain.
When the people we love the most—our friends, family, and loved ones—grieve, our first instinct is to help them. Often, we rush to word or deed, failing to stop and consider the very personal, nuanced nature of grief. Other times, we remain silent, hoping that the absence of reminders will allow the grief to slip away.
Both routes can only drive the hurt deeper.
We must consider the person behind the pain, and the nature of their grief before we speak. We must also accept that nothing we can offer will take that grief away. Even the most perfectly worded condolence will not change what has happened to them. Forget that notion.
You’re there to let them know they’re not alone. You’re there to hurt with them.
To help you comfort your grieving loved ones in the best way possible, let’s get an inside look at grief by going through 8 things grieving people wish you knew.
Their Loss is Uniquely Theirs
Everyone experiences and reacts to emotional pain differently. Many of us think that we can know someone’s particular brand of grief because we have experienced something similar, or know someone who went through the same turmoil. The unfortunate fact is: every instance of grief is unique.
The desire to connect is strong when we’re comforting a saddened loved one, but we must be sensitive about making assumptions about their loss. Perhaps you often find yourself using phrases like, “I know how much this hurts”.
Don’t—because you don’t know. One of the difficulties of being human lies in man’s inability to know man. We simply cannot live within someone else’s head.
For example, you may have lost a parent, and had to go through the grieving process in order to come to terms with your loss. Perhaps you had a wonderful relationship with your deceased parent, and you love to hear others speak of him or her. Now imagine that your friend has also lost a parent. Perhaps their parent, though, was abusive, and their memories are traumatic and negative. The two of you may have experienced a similar loss, but will be feeling very different things, and will be comforted in very different ways.
Pay attention to the individual behind the grief, and be sensitive to their uniqueness. They’ll find much greater comfort in your presence.
Comparing Pain isn’t Helpful
Don’t compare pain. Let me say that again. Do not compare pain. A grieving person’s grief, as we’ve learned, is unique—to compare their pain to that of others can feel trivializing to the grieving individual.
Rather, let the conversation rest on the grieving person. Talk about him or her, and, if appropriate, what they’ve lost.
Most destructive of all is the habit of trying to help someone feel better by citing some grief or loss that is “worse” than theirs. An example of this would be telling someone who just lost their job that you once lost your job and your house and your wife divorced you afterward. You might think that this would put their grief into perspective, and that they’ll think “Well, I guess my situation isn’t so bad,” but that’s not the case.
Bringing up some greater grief only makes them feel unheard and trivialized. There is greater grief in the world—yes—but right now, this individual grief is what’s important. Let your grieving loved one know how important they are by avoiding pain comparisons
They Don’t Need You to Fix Them
Seeing someone you love experiencing grief is incredibly difficult. Sometimes, that difficulty becomes such that we almost can’t help trying to “fix” the problem, which usually translates into trying to fix the grieving. We want the conversation to end with a smile or a revelation, or with the first baby steps of recovery tearfully taken.
But this isn’t want they want from you.
Sometimes people need to wrestle. They need to get down in the muck of their pain and take it on, themselves. Offering comfort isn’t about fixing those who are grieving, but rather about accepting their grief and how they choose to process it.
It’s okay to allow for unresolved grief and inner conflict. You don’t have to fix it all—let that be a load off your shoulders rather than a source of anxiety.
Join your grieving loved one in their grieving process. If they invite you to help them resolve the issue, or if they begin exhibiting unhealthy coping mechanisms, by all means, intervene. Otherwise, though, accept their grief. They’ll heal more quickly for it.
They Need to Take Their Time
Grieving is a marathon, not a sprint.
There are many things you’ll want to address with a grieving loved one. You’ll be tempted to verbally go right to their rescue, perhaps even on the day of their loss.
But this isn’t the time to start talking things through. Wait on that. In the beginning, allow yourself to be satisfied in simply being a companion at the outset of their grief journey. The discussions and reflection and thought will come later.
For example, telling someone that they’re “doing so well,” for having so recently lost something precious to them puts pressure on them to quickly live up to this praise. This will make the grieved feel as if there is something wrong with them for taking so long to process and experience their pain.
Give them your time and your ear, but wait on the majority of your words. That will come.
It’s Not Personal; it’s Pain
Nothing is more hurtful to a grieving individual than having a friend or family member turn on them.
As difficult as it may be to believe, this happens. Someone goes through a traumatic experience, only to find that, as they grieve, someone is offended that they were not consulted or included in the grieving process. Just as bad is when someone seeks attention for what they’re doing to help the grieved individual, or vocally requires credit for their deeds.
It can be easy to resent the attention that a grieving person receives, but please—resist this. If you feel such resentment growing, take your leave. Get away from the situation—this is the best thing you can do for your grieving loved one, if this is the case.
If you find most of your sentences beginning with variations of “I,” try to steer the conversation back to your grieved loved one. And hold off your own stories of personal triumph over pain until invited to share. But above all, become offended and belligerent at their pain, at the attention they receive, or at how they choose to process their grief. It’s not personal. It’s pain.
After all, one day, this may be you. Will you want someone to resent you for your pain? No—so please examine your intentions before you try to help your grieving loved one.
Listening is the Best Give You Can Give
Listening is a learned art rather than the automatic process many think it is.
True listening involves more than hearing. It’s interpreting what you hear. It’s thinking about what the other individual in the conversation just said rather than constantly focusing on what you wish to say—it’s about them, not you, remember?
But don’t stop there. Validate what you hear. Receive their words with grace, and let the grieved speaker know that you value their emotions, and that what they’re feeling is okay. Ensure that you’re a safe place for them, a companion who will validate rather than criticize or fix them.
Don’t feel the need to fill up awkward silences. They’re not awkward! A grieving person has to slowly process what they’re feeling, and simply having someone present for that process is often enough to help them feel like they’re not alone. Allow for silence in a conversation with someone who is in great pain.
Listening skills are the most valuable thing you can give someone who is grieving. Do your best to give it to them.