In two recent posts, I've talked about the advice grief educator Val Walker gives on how to help friends who are dealing with the end of a relationship, whether from a breakup or the loss of a loved one. Those posts have focused mostly on what to say. Now, let's talk about myths surrounding the art of comforting — and about a few things you should (and shouldn't) do if you want to help.
Saying (or e-mailing or tweeting) "I'm here if you need me" usually comforts our friends.
Unfortunately, a statement like that is not comforting for most people dealing with grief. Saying "if you need me" leaves it up to your friend to call you, but she probably doesn't want to be a burden, and reaching out will probably make her feel "needy." It's much better for your friend to be offered something specific from you, which she can feel free to accept or not. For example, say or text, "If you like, I can give you a call Monday night." This way, your friend knows you will be there for her — that you really mean it. This is so much more comforting than a vague promise. If your friend is feeling too sad or hurt in her grief to accept your invitation, it is important that you as a comforter never take personally your friend's refusal to your offer. Whether you offer a phone call, your home-cooked lasagna, a walk in the park together, or just a big hug, if your friend says "no, thanks," you need to be okay with that. You shouldn't be putting any pressure on the person who is grieving. Also, there is nothing wrong with gently offering your phone call again, say, a week or two later, as most likely your grieving friend is going through changing and confusing emotions and may feel differently days later.
The friend who gives a hug is more comforting than the friend who runs an errand to help you out.
Most grieving people like a reliable, true blue friend who they can count on just as much as they want a huggy, warm person to comfort them. You don't have to be touchy-feely or warm-and-fuzzy to be supportive.
Comforting the friend means having a big heart-to-heart talk about the break-up.
Often grieving people just want low-key, undemanding companionship, just "hanging out" — watching a favorite TV show together, or throwing a Frisbee for your dog, or just sitting quietly on the porch watching a sunset. We can offer to listen, and if they want to have a heart-to-heart, that's great. But if no talking happens, that's okay, too.
Good comforters always know what to say.
Sometimes there really is little that can be said, except that you're sorry for their loss. Offering to listen is one of the best things you can do. Showing empathy and concern is wonderfully comforting in itself. Just showing up and being attentive is all that is needed sometimes. Your eyes speak volumes when you really listen.