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I don’t know what to say…

Following on from my recent series on Saying Goodbye, I thought I’d look at the situation from another perspective, that of the friends and family of the person who has been bereaved. 

So often in this country, dying and grief are taboo subjects and so they’re rarely talked about in general conversation.  This means that when a friend experiences the death of someone close to them, we don’t know what to say.  Sadly, this can sometimes result in us feeling clumsy in our attempts to say the right thing or leave us feeling that it’s better to just avoid the situation – and the person – all together.

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no ‘right’ thing to say.  There is no ‘magic phrase’ that’s going to make their pain go away, and they won’t be expecting that of you, so let go of that expectation and the pressure it brings.

Secondly, the person will need their family and friends around them at this time, so please don’t avoid them.  Grief can feel like a very lonely place to be and if we avoid the person or worse, cross the street so that we don’t have to talk to them, this can be very hurtful and isolating.

So, what can you do to support a friend who is grieving?

Actually, you don’t need to say very much at all.  Even a simple, ‘I don’t know what to say’, is a good start.

Remember that this time is about them, so you don’t need to tell them stories about a loss you’ve experienced to show that you understand.  Everyone’s experience of loss is unique – and indeed each loss can be different – so no matter how much you might try to empathise, you can’t fully step into their shoes and know what they’re feeling.  So just keep it simple and honest.  Some suggestions would be:

  • “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now.”

  • “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here if you’d like to talk, or if you’d just like me to sit with you.”

  • Invite them to talk about the person – or animal – who has died.  Often, we can tend to shy away from mentioning things like birthdays or anniversaries due to our discomfort when actually the person themselves very much wants to talk about their loved one. 

  • Follow your friend’s lead and notice the language they use.  What terms are they comfortable with?  Some people might find ‘has died’ perfectly acceptable, but ‘is dead’ can feel too blunt.  Others might not have a problem with this.  Some might use ‘passed away’ and some might passionately dislike that phrase.

  • Allow your friend to talk while you listen in a non-judgemental way.  They might say some things that we find surprising, or even shocking, but they are working through their emotions and need to be allowed the space to do this.

  • Reassure them that grief is a normal response to bereavement and that it can take many forms.  You might like to take a look at this downloadable leaflet as it might help to reassure both yourself and your friend that what they’re experiencing is actually quite normal or, if it becomes excessive, you’ll be more able to recognise this and know when to suggest that they look for further support.

  • Ask your friend if there is any practical support you can offer, such as doing some shopping, cooking or washing for them.

Often, it’s not so much about what we say, it’s about our physical presence.  Just being there with your friend, offering your time, friendship and a listening ear, is a great support, and all that they will be expecting of you.

Remember that we are social beings who need to feel connected.  At the moment, while we’re still in ‘lockdown’ here in the UK, this can be challenging, but a video / phone call can mean so much.  A card or letter will also let them know that you’re thinking of them, and is a physical reminder of your care these times when we might not be able to be there in person.

When closer encounters are possible once more, a caring touch on the hand or arm, can say more than words, which often feel so inadequate at times like these.

As I mentioned above, everyone’s response to grief, and their way of processing it, is unique.  This means that you are not expected to have the answers.  So just be yourself.  Let go of any expectations.  Ask your friend what they need from you, and let them know that they are free to ask for your company, or for some time to themselves.  If they choose the latter, please don’t be offended.  This might be exactly what they need right now, and giving this time might be the best gift you can offer.  That’s not to say that you should then pull back and wait for them to contact you – unless of course they ask for this.  Just give them a bit of space and then check back again after a while to see how they’re doing.  Trust your intuition.  If you feel that your friend just needs some quiet time to grieve and process, that’s fine, however if you feel they are withdrawing and becoming depressed, then a gentle nudge to reconnect, or even to ask for further help, might be needed.

Grief is a non-linear process and has no time limit.  It can seem to ease and then appear again, out of the blue.  Let your friend know that your offer of help won’t ‘run out’, that they can call on you and you will understand, at any time in the future.

It’s also worth noting that we often expect special dates to be difficult, for example birthdays, Christmas and other holidays, or the anniversary of the death, but in fact it might be the lead-up to these dates which is the hardest, filled with dread and anxiety, so remember to check in with your friend at these times too.

In summary, let go of the pressure of perceived expectations and just be yourself.  Give your friend the time and space they need to talk, to just sit quietly, or to take some time to process.  Stay connected and remember that your friend’s feelings will probably change from day to day, and so the support they need will vary too.  Being adaptable and accepting of this will also show how much you care.

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