7 tips to help when a friend is experiencing loss
Grief and loss are part of life. At this time in the world we, as humans, are sharing a collective kind of loss – loss of certainty and loss of freedom in many instances. I wonder if it will make us better humans in the long run, able to support each other better – sympathise, empathise, understand each other more?
In my own most difficult times my closest friends have been my rock. It can however be hard to know what to do or say when you’re with someone who’s grieving or going through trauma of some kind.
We desperately want the person to be OK. We want to be able to help them back onto their feet somehow or try to limit the impact of their loss. We can feel uncomfortable with tears. We sometimes just don’t know what to do or say to comfort someone going through loss.
Loss doesn’t have to be about the loss of a person, of course. It could be financial loss, bankruptcy, divorce, a serious health diagnosis or debilitating injury – or something else. It’s personal, and the way we go through it is equally personal.
For a person who’s grieving something or someone, if you can simply ‘be there’ in the same space, and just listen and acknowledge how they feel, it’s a huge comfort. It lets the grieving person know you’re not going to run away, and it can help make them feel much less alone. Simple things can help fill a heart that’s empty, even if just for a moment.
How to comfort someone going through loss – 7 tips
We all respond in different ways in difficult times, but here are seven of my own suggestions for how to comfort someone going through loss:
1. Use “I imagine” instead of “you must”
We may think we know how someone is feeling, but actually we don’t. For this reason, using the phrase, “I imagine you’re feeling…x…” is much kinder than simply making an assumption about them and saying “You must be feeling…x…”.
I learned this when going through the Grief Recovery Method, after the death of three people very close to me. Hearing someone tell me how I must be feeling was hard, whereas knowing they were trying to imagine how I was feeling showed me they were trying to understand. That helped at lot.
2. Appreciate a different view of the world – or of life and death
I don’t follow any prescriptive religion, but I do tend to believe that there’s a bigger picture to our lives somehow. For me, that can help a little when difficult things happen, even if it doesn’t remove the pain. We’re all different, and when we’re grieving something or someone, we have to try to find our way through it and make some kind of sense of it ourselves, moment by moment. Our belief system (‘belief’ in a broad sense) can help or hinder us in that respect.
Similarly, when we acknowledge the cultural, religious and/or personal rituals someone else may place around their grief or pain of loss, it can help them feel more supported. It’s not the time to try to persuade them to consider other possibilities – unless they want to talk about that, of course.
3. Don’t compare your experience to theirs
Even if there are some similarities between your own experience of loss and someone else’s, it’s not the same. It may appear the same at first glance, but we rarely know all the ins and outs of a situation or all the historical reasons why someone may be feeling as bad as they are. Just as no two people have exactly the same life experience, no two people experience exactly the same pain.
After the death of my previous partner, a colleague told me he knew exactly how I felt because his father-in-law had died the previous year. I remember his words feeling almost like an insult. He may well have felt great loss, but he had no idea what my own individual loss was like for me.
4. Ask how they are in this moment
Don’t ask a big question like “How are you?” – because the person is probably feeling terrible and it’s a huge question to have to answer. Ask instead how they’re feeling ‘this morning’ or ‘today’ or ‘right now’. It’s much easier to answer, and it gives you much more immediate information about how the person is in this moment.
5. Avoid saying “if there’s anything I can do…”
Different people may have different views about this, but for me the phrase “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” puts the onus on the person in pain to think about it. In the chaos of loss, it can be hard to think about the next minute, let alone what you might want someone else to do. The chances are they won’t ask. So, instead, make it much more specific. For example, ask if they’d like you to make them some food, answer the phone, run some errands, do some shopping – something that’s easy for them to say yes or no to in that moment.
6. Avoid accidentally diminishing their experience
It’s natural to want to be encouraging and to think of positive things to say to someone in pain, but for the person experiencing loss it can feel as though their pain is not being acknowledged. A phrase to avoid is ‘at least’: “at least you had a chance to say goodbye before he died”; “at least you still have time to try for another baby”; “at least you’ve got enough money for the next month or two”. For the person experiencing the loss it can feel as if they’re being told their (very real) pain or fear is not actually justified. Grief and loss can feel so isolating, and this can make it worse.
7. Check in with them
Call or send messages every so often – even if it’s just a short note to let them know you’re thinking of them. This can be particularly important after a funeral, when everyone’s gone back to their own lives and the silence in the grieving person’s world can become deafening.
We all respond differently to loss, but by carefully building trust with someone going through trauma – through our conversations and by being sensitive to how they may need to be cared for and comforted – we can help them through the most difficult of times.