Comforting Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One: My Advice
What to Say When Someone Has Lost a Loved One
At one time or another, everyone will be in the position of needing to comfort a friend who has lost a loved one. It can be very difficult to know what to do or say. If you have never lost someone close to you, it may be hard to determine what would provide comfort.
After losing my daughter to a car accident, there were some things that comforted me and other things that actually hurt more than they helped, despite them all being well-intentioned. I do feel that after going through that experience, I can better minister to others who are going through something similar. In this article I will share some of the things that I learned in hopes that you will be able to use some of the suggestions when you are called on to comfort a friend who has lost a loved one.
Note that I am not a trained counselor or psychologist, and I have not studied the various information on death and dying, such as the stages of grief. I can only speak from personal experience and share my views after going through the most devastating time of my life.
Don't: Say You Understand
Unless you have gone through the exact type of loss your loved one is experiencing, don't try to tell the hurting friend that you understand. The truth is, you really don't simply because you can't. There's nothing wrong with not understanding the grief but wanting to sympathize. In this case, it is far more comforting to hear "I can't even imagine," rather than "I understand what you're going through," which may come across as insincere.
It comes down to just being very honest about what you can and can't understand but letting the person know that you acknowledge their pain at the very least.
Don't: Ask How He or She Is Doing
Don't ask your friend how they are doing—you can answer that yourself: they are not doing well.
This is a common thing to do and instinctively the first thing that may come to mind. While you do care and are just trying to help, this phrase does not help and puts the hurting friend in a position of saying they're "fine" even though they are not. Alternatively they could also end up blowing up and saying something like "Of course I'm not fine," or "How do you think I'm doing?"
When I was going through my loss, another father who had lost two daughters of his own told me to tell my friends: instead of asking me how I'm doing, ask "Are you hanging in there?" That is something I could answer truthfully, and by admitting that I was hanging in there it gave me a bit of strength. I have used this phrase many times since then when talking to friends who were going through a loss or divorce or illness, and it always brought a smile or a knowing look.
Don't: Force Them to Talk
There are times when a grieving person needs to talk and there are times when they just need to cry. Don't force them to talk about how they are feeling or tell them they need to "get it out." There may come a time later that they may need to talk to a professional if they are keeping too many feelings bottled up, but right after the loss is not that time. They may need you to be with them even if they are quiet. That's the best you can do in that case—just sit with them and let them know that you're there by doing that.
Don't: Tell Them They Will be Okay or That Time Will Heal the Wounds
In short, don't use any of the cliches that are typically used such as telling them they will be okay, that time will heal all wounds, that it was just meant to be or similar such remarks. The exception to this is if it comes from someone who has truly been through the same kind of loss. For example, one mother who had lost both her son and daughter in an auto accident years earlier, came to my house the day after I got home from the hospital and looked me straight in the eyes and said, "You will be okay." I looked at her and saw in her eyes that she had experienced the same devastating fear and pain that I was feeling and knew I could trust her. I held on to those four words for a very long time.
Personally, the hardest thing for me to hear was that time would heal all wounds or that I would get better with time. Thinking about the future without my daughter brought fear and dread. What really helped was just to have my friends acknowledge that I was in pain and that they were there for me.
Do: Show Your Feelings
Show your feelings. It's okay to cry with them.
The Bible tells us to mourn with those who mourn. If you are hurting for them, it's okay to cry with them. It meant a great deal for me to see tears in the eyes of my friends. While I knew they didn't understand what I was going through, their tears meant that they loved me and that they hurt because I hurt. The tears of a friend also gave me the freedom to let it all out and not apologize or try to control my emotions when I really just needed to cry.
Do: Talk About Their Loved One
I can only speak about the loss of a child but right after the loss as well as now, it makes me so happy to hear one of my friends talk about my daughter and especially to say and hear her name.
It is normal for you to feel like you will upset the hurting friend by not bringing up the loved one or trying to make them think about something else. However the truth is that it is actually comforting to hear someone speak about the loved one. Right after my loss and even more so today, it gives me such joy to hear someone talk about my daughter and especially to say and hear her name. I'm not sure why hearing her name is so comforting but I have talked to several other parents who have also lost a child and they have reported the same thing. It may be that after losing a child, a parent has a fear of the child being forgotten. This way, she or he is kept alive and remembered through the conversation and memories.
Do: Continue to Be There for Them After Everyone Else Has Gone Back to Their Normal Life
The weeks following the accident were filled with cards, visits, phone calls but as the weeks turned into months people just normally go back to their daily life while the hurting person is still hurting and in need of those same things - cards, visits and phone calls. The first few weeks I was in shock and although I was hurting I hadn't completely grasped the loss or the loneliness. As the brevity of the event sets in I needed those things more than ever and I am thankful for the friends who have continued to minister to me even to this day.
My Beautiful Daughter Kristi Marie
Do: Contact Me If You Need Support
I have mentioned several "don'ts" in this article, and while I hate to use such a negative connotation, it's important that you understand what may not help in this type of situation. More than anything else, I want to be honest with you so that you can really minister to your hurting friend.
If, on the other hand, you are reading this article because like me, you are going through the loss of a loved one or even a child, please know that you are not alone. Please email me if you have lost a child—the thing that helped me the most was being able to ask questions and to talk to other parents who knew the emotions that I was experiencing.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.