Grief shouldn’t have to be an awkward conversation. Actually, it should be a very natural conversation because grief happens to pretty much everyone. Death happens every day. It IS part of life.
So why is it so awkward? Maybe it’s because it makes us uncomfortable to see people hurting. Maybe it’s because we have this innate drive to want those people to just ‘be better’. Maybe it’s fear of making it worse by saying or doing the wrong thing.
When fresh loss has happened, a lot of people are unsure how to broach the griever. Do you tackle the elephant in the room and talk about the loss head on? Do you ignore the subject so as to avoid them being in a state of perpetual reminding of their loss? I mean, you don’t want to cause a break down for them by unnecessarily regurgitating it all over and over.
I’d say the answer is….
Well, none of the above.
Help much? (hehehe)
The goal shouldn’t be to shine a spotlight on them and their grief and make them squirm under its attention. Even though your intention may be for them to know how much you are thinking of them and how much you care, they don’t need the pressure of that spotlight.
And, the goal shouldn’t be to avoid the topic and make them think that it is something uncomfortable to talk about. Making grand efforts to avoid the subject of their pain is hard to endure and helps create the awkwardness because they feel they can’t simply be natural about it.
The goal should simply be empathy and acknowledgement and support.
So what to do?
1. Acknowledge the pain in the flow of natural conversation.
No need to stop for dramatic pause. No need to constantly dig into some heavy question and zero your focus in on them. I often mentioned the death of my husband during conversations about totally different things, so it leaves no great lull to cause those listening to have to scurry for how to respond. In the same way, you can make the griever feel acknowledged by talking about their pain in the natural flow of almost anything, without the burden of being on “that topic” or ‘how to respond?”
And do you know the great thing about practicing bringing it into the natural flow of conversation? It makes it a natural part of a flowing conversation. The way it should be. The opposite of awkward. The flow of life. It helps the recognition of the fact that the loss is part of them, part of their life and they don’t need to feel awkward or ashamed about it.
2. One of the best ways to support your grieving friend is to talk about their loved one. It’s one of the best gifts.
Throw in bits of memories and references to the lost loved one in the flow of conversation. This is a great way of acknowledging their situation without being so forthright. Without shining the spotlight directly on them, their loss and heavy emotions, you shine it instead on the loved one. That is a fantastic way to honor the painful situation. By doing this, you bring acknowledgment to both the people involved and the painful situation without it being so direct. By mentioning memories or fond attributes, you are showing them the fact that you are thinking of them, thinking of the lost person, recognizing the loss, without shining the light painfully on them. It is often very comforting to the griever to know their loved one is remembered by others.
3. Remember your job isn’t to make them feel better.
Refrain from saying and doing things to try and brighten their outlook on their situation. If they just lost someone, they shouldn’t be pressured to feel better. The things people say to “comfort” (aka make them feel better) often comes across as minimizing the pain. It can also come across as a sign that you are uncomfortable with them hurting and are trying to change their legitimate emotions. This may increase the awkward sensation because they feel they can’t be natural around you with their pain.
4. Sometimes the best support is not words.
While you are hanging out with your friend, don’t feel you have to just sit and dwell in the sadness (unless they need that). Feel free to offer them a vacation from the exhaustion of sadness. You can acknowledge their struggle and offer support in lots of other little ways. Those little ways mean a lot. A card. A text. A meal. A gift card. An act of service. If you do these things, you don’t ever have to wonder if your friend is feeling your support. Then when you are face-to-face there won’t have to be this awkward pressure to say something to acknowledge their grief because your other actions will have already done so. And, relieving that pressure will help make your face-to-face encounters more about the blessings of visiting, socializing, and offering a reprieve from the sadness.
Here are some great basics if you know someone in the raw stages of grief and you are unsure how to respond:
1. There is no set standard of time that magically makes it better. Six months… a year… doesn’t make the loss magically more palatable. In fact, after the first year, there is often even deeper emotions the griever will deal with after the newness, shock, denial and numbness have worn off.
2. Your job isn’t to make them feel better. (Relieve yourself of that expectation). Most comments that surface from this intention end up having the opposite effect.
3. Be comfortable with their tears. Or their silence.
4. Be okay with unmet invitations. But don’t stop offering them. Often the griever isn’t up to social expectations or their bipolar emotions can interrupt plans. But, the fact that someone thinks about them enough to continually offer an invitation is a great encouragement.
5. Don’t wait to be asked. Find tangible and practical ways to show your support.
6. If you are unsure how to talk to them, don’t be afraid to ask direct questions so you can learn what they, as individuals, need and desire. One day they may need for you to distract them with your mundane problems and chatter. Another day, that chatter might be driving them crazy. What one person may want may be different than another. Ask.
7. Empathy is your first goal. Not advice (unless they ask for it). Not “comfort”. Not trying to make them see the bright side of their situation. Just empathy.
8. “How are you doing?” can be a tiring question. Besides the griever always trying to figure out an answer to a complicated question, it is one of those things that shines that dreaded spotlight on them. Try asking more specific questions. Have they been out to a ballgame lately? Would they like to go? Have they finished with whatever project they had been forced to deal with? Do they need help? What have they been up to this week (or day)? (This particular question can be a great inlet into seeing what they are dealing with and give you a launching pad to discuss how they’re doing without asking ‘how are you doing’. Not only does it make them feel like a normal person to be asked such a normal question, but the answer can offer an indirect glimpse into their struggles and needs).
If you have a grieving friend, don’t overcomplicate it. Just give them room as they squirm and chafe under this new tyrant called grief.. Give them understanding as they flounder in the yo-yo of emotions. And lots of love and grace.