Helping a Person Who's Hurting
Relationships with friends and family members would be so much easier if they came with an instructional manual for how to comfort them when they're grieving or in crisis. Knowing what to say to a person in the wake of a loss or tragedy is something that many people struggle with. The truth is that there's no magic word or deed that can erase deep pain. But your presence and gentle support can mean the world to someone who's going through a tough time.
Validate the Unique Experience of Grief
Accept that you don't truly know how your loved one feels and avoid trying to convince him (or yourself) that you do. Though often fueled by good intentions, telling someone that you know how he feels may actually do more harm than good because you're probably wrong. Everyone experiences grief in his own unique way. Instead of trying to relate to your loved one’s pain, validate it for the unique experience that it is. Even if you think you have an idea of what he's going through, tell him that you can’t imagine how he must feel and let him know how sorry you are that he's experiencing so much pain.
Do More Listening Than Talking
It might be tempting to share common clichés or advice, but it can be more helpful if you simply listen. Let him know that you're there for emotional support and invite him to talk about his feelings if he wants to. Just don’t push if he doesn’t. One of the most compassionate things you can do for someone you care about when all seems lost is to simply sit with him in silence. There's no need to fill the silence with words; your presence and willingness to listen is more comforting than any advice you can give.
Offer Practical Help
Grief and sorrow are energy-sucking emotions that sometimes make even the most basic tasks seem insurmountable to the person who's suffering. Helping with practical tasks can be an invaluable way to show support. Asking a grieving person to let you know of any help you can give can, however, actually burden him with the task of having to reach out to you. Instead, make specific suggestions. Offer to care for pets, pick up children from school or do grocery shopping. Mention that you could drop off dinner or help clean house. You're the best judge of what someone might need most, so anticipate what you can do to help and then suggest it.
The process of grieving a loss or overcoming a tragedy is often a lengthy one. Your presence and support may be even more meaningful for your loved one after the initial shock of the experience has started to wear off. Be consistent in your support by checking in occasionally to see how he's doing and to remind him that you're still around. Invite him to talk about his feelings and continue offering suggestions for practical ways that you can help, especially on holidays or other special days when challenging emotions can resurface.
Things to Avoid
Sometimes knowing what not to do can also be invaluable. Never minimize another's grief or tell him how he should be feeling at any given time. Keep in mind that each person handles grief and loss differently, and don’t take it personally if a reaction isn't what you expected. Avoid judging your friend or loved one for how he expresses his grief, and don't set expectations for how long you think his grieving process should take.
Kristina Barroso earned a B.A. in Psychology from Florida International University. She is happily married, works full-time as a public school teacher and enjoys mothering her 5-year-old daughter and 14-year-old stepson. She has also fostered several children and loves writing about parenting, families, education and relationships on WorkingMother.com and TheClassroom.com.