How To Help People Grieve

Photo: Beverly

Photo: Beverly

After a prolonged, debilitating illness, two weeks ago my father–at long last–died. As a physician, I’ve observed many people experience loss, but this is the first time I’ve lost someone close to me. This has, not surprisingly, put me on the receiving end of many condolences. Yet unable to rid myself of my analytical mind even in the midst of grief, I’ve found myself noting that the level of comfort people have in supporting others who are grieving seems to vary as much as the number of ways in which people grieve. And while everyone who’s expressed their condolences for my loss has been wonderful, I’d like to offer some guidelines for those who feel awkward when called upon to express support for people who are grieving and don’t feel they know how.

  1. What you say isn’t important. A lot of people worry more about what they’re going to say to someone who’s lost a loved one than anything else, feeling that anything they say will, by definition, be inadequate. No one likes feeling uncomfortable, and people are often extremely uncomfortable around others who are sad, perhaps feeling a sense of urgency to figure out something to say that will make them less sad. But this is the wrong goal. Sadness is on its own timeline, and what sad people really want is permission to be sad without worrying how their sadness is affecting others. I don’t actually remember a single thing anyone said to me at my father’s memorial service. What I do remember is what I felt from them when they spoke—empathy, sadness, and concern. You can’t fix a loss, so don’t try. Even more important than your heartfelt condolences is your permission—communicated in whatever way feels most comfortable to you—that it’s okay to be sad around you. Or angry. Or depressed. Or whatever the bereaved happen to be feeling.
  2. Don’t talk too much. Some people just can’t help themselves and simply start blathering (luckily this didn’t happen to me). Either they’re nervous about figuring out the right thing to say, or they’re nervous about saying the wrong thing. But, really, when you talk too much the grieving person will sometimes begin to feel that they must take care of you. And quite honestly that’s generally very last thing they want to do. Remember #1 above: what you say isn’t important. Silence isn’t awkward for grieving people. Unless it’s awkward for you.
  3. Tell stories. Not about your grief over a similar loss of your own (unless it’s to communicate that you know what they’re going through). Tell a story about the person who died (presuming you knew them). The kind of story doesn’t matter. It can be a good story, an encouraging story, or a funny story. I loved hearing about my father through the eyes of other people, about how his life impacted them. Because every story I heard reminded me—or showed me—who my father was.
  4. Ask how you can best provide support. Don’t presume you know. Don’t be afraid that asking is inappropriate. It’s not. I was surprised to discover that I wanted no one around me immediately after my father died (I was, in fact, the one who found him). And then I did want people around me (my family). And then I didn’t again. A number of people said that if I there was anything they could do for me I should just ask. Though slightly different from asking how they could best support me, I replied each time that I wanted to hear stories about my dad. I even posted that request on Facebook. That was how I wanted to be supported. The answer that others give will undoubtedly be different, and may very well even be, “I don’t know.” But then you can let them know that’s okay, too.
  5. Don’t think they only need support at first. I wrote in one of my very first posts, Letter To A Widow, that after the death of a loved one, “inevitably conversations end, people go home to resume their normal lives, and the wife or husband or son or daughter is left alone with pain now occupying the space their loved one used to be.” I’m actually sometimes a little mad that the world has gone on about its business, that it hasn’t stopped in some way because of my father’s death. So to be asked once in a while by my friends, “How are you doing?” is actually nice. I mostly say, “Sad, but okay.” But even to have the chance to say that feels good. Not because I want others to acknowledge that I’m still grieving. Because I want others to acknowledge that it still matters that my father is no longer around.

Of course, everyone grieves in their own way. The advice I’ve given here is meant for people who grieve as I do. Or, I should say, as I am right now over the loss of my father. I’m sure if I was instead grieving over my wife—or my son—I’d be doing it quite differently. But even then, I suspect the core message I’m trying to convey would still apply: you have nothing to be anxious about in comforting the bereaved; the most important thing you can do for them—the only thing you need to do for them, trite as it is to say—is simply be present.

 

22 comments to How To Help People Grieve

  • Realism without resorting to insincerity is key. Funeral traditions so often become courtesy-based ceremonies.

    My condolences.

  • It is so like you, Alex, to use your grief to help others.

    Darrell and Katie and I are sorry for your loss!

    Hugs,

    Maureen

  • I am sorry about the loss of your father. I have never met your father, but admire the work of the son he created—you. He created good in this world.

  • Sylvia Stuart

    Thanks, Alex, for your post.

    I’m sorry about the loss of your father and thanks for your thoughtful reflections on how you can help someone grieving as so many people feel uncomfortable with this. I think what you wrote is also applicable to comforting people who are facing a serious illness in someone they care about.
    Can I also say that I just finished reading your book and found it a great mixture of evidence-based, as well as more intuitive, ways to cope with our sometimes unhelpful minds.

    Thanks, Alex.

  • Mark

    Hi Alex.

    A thoughtful article, as always. I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing. It reminded me of my own father’s death in 2008. What I remember most vividly at the funeral, were the kind words of more than a hundred friends and acquaintances, most of whom told a funny anecdote about my father. The words weren’t important, just the impact my father had on those peoples’ lives. Even the boss my father hated got up to tell a funny story about Dad. It reminded me who my father was.

    Human nature is a funny thing; people usually do the right thing at the right time. At my father’s funeral, those stories made all the difference to help with the grieving process. It really does make you stronger.

    I wish you all the best with your grieving process.

  • psstwife

    The Los Angeles Times, April 07, 2013

    How not to say the wrong thing
    By Susan Silk and Barry Goldman

    It works in all kinds of crises—medical, legal, even existential. It’s the “Ring Theory” of kvetching. The first rule is comfort IN, dump OUT.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

    psstwife: I love this.

    Alex

  • VJKramer

    Thank you for this post. It is very awkward to talk with someone after the death, or even during the serious illness, of a loved one.

    I read one time that the bereaved are saddened that others don’t mention the name of a person who died. Apparently, this is because they don’t want to open a wound or, frankly, because they have moved on.

    The husband of a coworker of mine died quite suddenly and my coworker clearly grieved this horrible loss for a very long time.

    I took to heart this idea of remembering and left a note on her desk one day a few months after her loss. She was very touched by such a small gesture and thanked me for thinking of her. I was pretty surprised by her response and mention it here in case others may want to do the same for someone that they know.

  • Mira D

    Peace and prayers.

    He must have been so proud of you.

  • Eve

    Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss of your father. Eve

  • Pamela Goodman

    Dear Alex,

    I loved what you wrote. I am sorry for your loss. Now your world has become smaller and larger. Smaller for the loss of your father and larger for learning what the death of a father brings. These are lessons only learned one very painful way.

    Today is the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. This is the first thing I read this morning. Angels are busy.

    When my brother suddenly died a year and a half ago people said things that my sister and other brother tried to figure out. They talked as if we would grieve less because he was a brother and not a parent.

    Chris was my guiding light, my best friend, and held memories only we shared being the older two. Why do people quantify or measure loss as if the pain was less by degrees? I felt I had to “bounce back” way too fast and that has led to many tearful nights.

    Peace be with you.

  • Shira Malkin

    Thank you for this post, Alex Lickerman. You are a blessing. My sincere condolences on the death of your father. Peace, Shira

  • John Graf

    “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

    I think I have a fairly keen insight into your father.

    Peace.

  • Jane

    Alex, I am sorry for your loss. Your father must have been quite a man.

    When I lost my father and later, my husband, I craved knowing that they were remembered by others. Hearing stories about them was not only a comfort, but also a revelation. The things I learned from people who knew them as colleague or mentor or school pal enlarged my appreciation of who they were. I hope you will continue to know more about your father through those who cared about him.

  • sylvia villarreal

    Dear Alex,

    I am truly sorry for your loss. I agree wholeheartedly that “showing up” for somebody at their time of loss and grief is so much more important than the “perfect words.” Seeing the tears in their eyes and our sadness reflected on their faces was the best tribute friends paid to both my parents. Being held, physically and emotionally, in their embrace heals. May you be surrounded by loving kindness.

  • Ann

    My condolences on your loss, Dr Lickerman.

    Your father must have been very proud of you and your work.

    Peace and blessings to you.

  • Sharon Ulbrich

    I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for the kind words when my mom, Joan, died.


    Sharon: Thank you. I remember your mom so very well.

    Alex

  • Andrea

    My thoughts are with you. Grief, the human voyage that begins without, suddenly or eventually, and pervades within. Never a journey quite the same but ever a lesson in life.

    If there is ever anything you need or wish to know, never hesitate to let us, your readers, know.

  • Renata

    My sincere condolences on the loss of your father. Thank you for a beautiful post. It captures almost all of my own thinking and feeling after a loss of my firstborn child. There were no stories to be shared about Max, but I desperately wanted to talk about him, to honor his very short life. I still do 23 years later.

    Renata: I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.

    Alex

  • MAXINE HAYES

    Dearest Alex:

    My good thoughts go to you. I am sure that your father has gone to Eagle Peak. Those we love will be reborn with us…so the Buddha says. My heartfelt sympathy for your loss.

  • Ann

    My heart goes out to you. May the comfort and help that you have given others be returned to you. And may the best parts of your father live on through you.

    Take care.

  • rdp

    I have been absent from these pages for a long time, Alex, but happened to click on today and found this post about your father’s death. I am so very sorry for your loss. I also wish you the gift of being able to breathe through your grief without hindrance as it waxes and wains.

    rdp: Thank you.

    Alex

  • M Sealey

    Hi Alex,

    I hope people still tell you stories about your dad 🙂

    My husband died about 21 months ago to GBM. I stumbled upon this site over a year ago when I was trying to make sense of my shattered world. Some of your postings were a great comfort, especially your letter to the widow. (Thank you for sharing it.) I made this site one of my favourites, and occasionally return when things get tough or I get curious as to what is new with my “comfort” page. My world is no longer shattered, I am no longer grieving, but I still like to hear stories about my husband. One never tires of hearing stories about the ones we love!

    ~M

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