How Do You Help a Friend Who's Grieving?

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Grief memoirs are having a moment right now. Within the last two months, novelist Joyce Carole Oates published one about losing her husband, Slate editor Meghan O'Rourke penned one about losing her mother, and novelist Francisco Goldman wrote one about losing his young wife. Those books are all about how one person deals with his or her very personal loss, and we read them in part because we are looking for insights into things we will eventually experience.

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A book called The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress has specific tips on how someone can help a friend or relative get through a period of loss. And since I think many of us have been in the position of trying to soothe a buddy after a breakup, I decided to contact the author, Val Walker, a grief educator, to get her advice.

During delicate emotional moments, well-meaning words can often be taken the wrong way, or can fail to do the job you were hoping they'd do, as Val explains. "So many of us are afraid or awkward about comforting, and get tongue-tied in the nuanced, subtle etiquette of this vital social skill," she says. She adds that it's important to remember: "Everyone grieves in their own, personal way. There is no right way or wrong way to grieve, no deadline for 'getting over it.' We as comforters need to acknowledge and respect our friend's journey, which takes patience and humility. Being presumptuous, being preachy, and being pushy about 'getting over it' are the three Ps to avoid."

Val also had some more specific insights. She said:

  • Avoid telling your friend how to feel. Instead, listen. Share your empathy with the way she is grieving her loss.
  • Avoid telling your friend to be positive. Instead, you might point out something she is already doing that is positive. (For instance, maybe she is making sure she gets a proper amount of sleep, or she is keeping up with her exercise schedule because she knows being physically healthy will help her get through her period of emotional distress.)
  • Avoid giving advice right away. Instead, follow her lead, and ask her what she wants. Hold back on giving a suggestion unless she asks for one.
  • Avoid pushing your friend to "get over it" and get on with her life. Instead, reassure her that grief takes time.
  • Avoid preaching with clichés like "God doesn't give you any more than you can handle." Instead, acknowledge how hard this experience might be for her.
  • Avoid comparing her hardship to someone else's hardship, or your own hardship. Instead, validate and respect how her particular journey is important.

Val had a few more great ideas about how to help people dealing with a painful breakup or loss, including specific examples of what not to say and an interesting look at comforting myths. Stay tuned for those later this week.

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