How to Love and Support Those in Grief (and Avoid Inadvertently Adding to their Pain)

by Dr. Kristine Hurst-Wajszczuk

Note from Dr. Pitts: Kristine is a dear friend and professional singing buddy of mine. She is a Music Professor at UAB (choral conductor, voice teacher, opera director). She possesses great intelligence, depth, and heart, and is an engaging and gifted teacher. Kristine lost her father earlier this year: Her own journey through grief’s dark night and many such walks with others spawned and nurtured this delicate blossom of love and wisdom. Just a week after my mother died, another singing friend of mine and Kristine’s found her article, posted out of concern for students on her opera blog, and forwarded it to me.

Recently, I had a conversation with my students about death. Most of us are at a loss with regard to what we’re supposed to do when someone in our lives loses someone. I remembered when I was in high school or college, and people near me lost dear ones: sometimes I did the right thing, and sometimes I got it horribly wrong. I was driving blind, because I hadn’t experienced it myself. Following my father’s passing, I’m thinking quite a bit of those times people around me lost loved ones. There is deep regret for the times I messed it up. And I’m so very glad for the times I did the right thing, even if it was uncomfortable in the moment.

I figured it was worthwhile to talk about it. Death is a part of life: we are all going to deal with it at some point. While some of my students may have been horrified by this conversation, I hope it gives them some tools when the time comes. One student I just began working with came up to me afterward. “Dr. Kris,” he said, “My sister died in a car accident last fall. Thank you for talking about this. No one does because they’re so uncomfortable about it. So many people didn’t know what to do, and so they just avoided it…or avoided me. And that was the worst part.”
So I decided to write this post, mostly because of my student Coley. This is also lovingly dedicated to my students Madi and Sarah Grace, who lost parents while they were students at UAB. Until this summer, I didn’t quite understand that what you do—or don’t do—during these huge life events might shape personal and professional relationships. It’s not worth it to just blow it because you’re uncomfortable or don’t know what to say or do. So here are some ideas: I’ll bet that others who have gone through this will have some too.

What to say. Here’s the good news that will probably be a relief to many: You don’t have to say anything, especially if you can be there in person. A hug, holding a hand, just being with the person…all of those actions are more appreciated than you can imagine. In fact, it’s almost better to say nothing, so that the grieving person has room to say what he or she needs to say. Re-telling the story of the person’s death is a part of the process for many, and helps to make this whole incomprehensible event graspable, as for a while it doesn’t feel real. Listen intently. If they cry, offer a hand, but whether they want touch or not, just keep listening. If you feel compelled to say something, keep it short.
Here are some phrases that might work:

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. This is always appropriate.
  • I’ve been praying for you/thinking of you. Use whichever word you feel is right: It’s a nice sentiment.
  • I heard the news. How are you doing? Then listen. Just listen. Don’t try to insert what you assume.
  • May his/her memory be a blessing for you. I like this one in particular.
  • I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. This is actually much better than “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. It also opens the door for the person a chance to explore and share how they feel. My husband said this to me, and I so appreciated it; it was honest.
  • I remember when your dad… These stories become cherished, especially when it’s something you didn’t know about your dearly departed loved one. A high school friend told me that my dad was only positive male role model in his life. I’d never known that, and it moved me greatly that he said so.

What not to say. There are some phrases, however well-intentioned, that may not be helpful or might even be considered unkind. Here are some examples:

  • He’s better off where he is now. First of all, you may not know the bereaved person’s faith (or lack thereof), and this can be incredibly presumptuous. Besides, they’re grieving a loss right now, and this kind of comment can make them feel guilty for grieving, which makes things worse. Focus on the bereaved person’s pain. You can’t do anything about the deceased, nor can you assume what happens after life, though many of us carry very deeply held beliefs.
  • At least you had your father for X number of years. This, too, is insensitive. Acknowledge the loss; don’t minimize the pain. Comparing your grief to someone else’s (as if your grief was worse) doesn’t make you appear virtuous. You may have no idea what complicated family circumstances, manner of death, or anything else makes this loss as tough as it is. Losing a loved one is terrible no matter the circumstances, whether they lived 30 years or 80 years.
  • What can I do for you? This is tricky, because it’s usually so well-intentioned. The grieving person may have NO IDEA what he or she needs. Don’t ask him or her to make decisions if you can help it. Just try to do something nice for the person. See below (Part 2) for ideas.
  • Don’t monologue. This is not the time to talk about your own experience. There may be a time for that. Later, for you to share may even be important and perhaps a healing experience for them, but the first days and weeks are not about you, they’re about the immediately bereaved. Now is the time to listen, even if the person just wants to cry. And if they do, these are healing and good tears. The fact that they feel comfortable sharing their tears means they trust you, and you are doing exactly what you need to be doing to help them. Grief is necessary, and a good thing, albeit very painful.
  • Don’t assume that a difficult relationship makes for an easy time with grief. I lost my father first to alcoholism, then to my parent’s divorce, then to dementia, and finally to death. After all that loss while he was alive, I assumed I’d be nearly done grieving by the time he passed. I wasn’t, not by a long shot. How’s that for a surprise?

What to do. Our society is so uncomfortable with painful emotions, especially grief, that many people just avoid it. Even worse, they avoid people who are grieving, leaving them feeling abandoned and lonely as well. The appropriateness of each thing might depend on your relationship to the bereaved person or how frequently you see them. When in doubt, do more if you can, especially if you see them often. Here are some options:

  • Call. See above for what to say/not say.
  • Offer to make calls if you know people who should be informed. I’d never thought of this, but appreciated it when it was offered.
  • Send a sympathy card. If you don’t have the person’s home address, call their place of business. You can also send any number of free online e-cards if you know the person’s email address. My colleague Sue walked one over to our house, and I was deeply touched. It was the first one I received.
  • Send flowers. You can go to no matter where you are in the world. My colleague Denise and her husband Dan sent a peace plant, and it’s flourishing. In my opinion that’s an even better choice than flowers, because it goes on living if I tend to it…just like relationships.
  • Ask when you can stop by. See above for what to say/not say. It might actually be helpful to say, “I’d like to come see you tomorrow late afternoon. Is that okay?” It sounds silly, but in those first few days, having to choose a day and time to receive visitors might be even a bit of a daunting task. I so appreciated those who named a time, then checked to see if it would work for me. It was less to think about, when thinking about anything at all was really challenging.
  • Bring food. It’s a tradition for a reason. I found that cooking was the last thing I could muster the energy to do. Casseroles or soups are easily frozen and reheated if necessary. I was so deeply moved by the couple that brought dinner one night (and, even better, stayed to eat it with us). I hadn’t eaten all day but had no motivation to cook. We had been meaning to get together for ages, so we called it the “Thanks, Frank” dinner. I was deeply moved by the dozen or so people who came and brought food, listened to me read my eulogy, then cleaned my kitchen and put things in the freezer before they left. I didn’t have to worry about meals for a week. And thank God for them—I could barely get out of bed, let alone decide whether I was hungry, and what to cook. One dear friend brought chocolate to “sweeten the bitterness of grief.” I will be forever grateful for these people and their gifts of both their presence and nourishment.
  • Go to the funeral, or wake, even if you didn’t know the deceased. You are there to support the bereaved person, whether or not you know the person that passed, and whether or not you liked the person that passed. It’s a show of solidarity that conveys respect and compassion: my father-in-law’s entire workplace turned out when a co-worker’s parent died. I’ve gone to funerals of people I never met and been so glad I did. Where I come from, this is just what you do, and it’s a good and right thing to do. It took me a long time to realize this: Whether or not I like funerals (who does?) or think that wakes are barbaric is really beside the point.
  • Offer to come to another memorial. I have childhood friends from my hometown and relatives within a day’s drive who have offered to be present when I spread my father’s ashes in Vermont. Wow.
  • Make a donation. It doesn’t have to be much, and in fact, is meaningful because it’s truly the thought that counts. There are people I only met once or twice who made a donation to the Alzheimer’s Foundation in my father’s name when they heard the news. Consider donating to an organization appropriate to the deceased person’s medical condition, to the survivor’s church or synagogue, or to establish a scholarship in the deceased person’s name. The nice thing is, there is no timeline on this kind of thing, but of course, the sooner you do it, the better.
  • Text or Facebook message. This makes the most sense if you’re not able to send something, be there in person, or call, or if you haven’t been in touch in a long time. I was especially moved by my elementary school friends, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, who sent messages including memories of my dad when we were kids. I also so appreciated my students who sent me private text messages saying they were thinking of me. Two students from afar send me goofy pictures of them making faces with the message, “we’re thinking of you.” I got the sentiment and the attempt to make me smile simultaneously: How sweet.

What not to do. Many people are so nervous around people who have experienced loss, they just avoid the person who is grieving and hope the worst of it will blow over soon. As my friend Stan put it, “I don’t remember everyone who was there when my mother passed, but I sure remember who wasn’t.” Here’s what not to do:

  • Assume the bereaved person will ask for what he or she needs. They may not know what they need and may not know how to ask for it if they do. Reach out and do something without an invitation.
  • Pretend it didn’t happen. This is a huge event in this person’s life, especially if it’s a death in the immediate family. Ignoring it is never helpful or kind.
  • Wait until you think the person is “ready” to talk about it (to even acknowledge it). By the time you’re comfortable enough to ask, the person may have decided you didn’t care enough to ask. My student who lost a sister in a car accident said that he felt like people avoided him when he needed more than anything to be around friends who cared. Once the funeral is over and the relatives have left, that person is alone with his or her grief. This can be the worst time. Be there with them.
  • Be afraid the person will fall apart if you ask how they’re doing, so don’t bother asking. They might really need to talk. They might not. They might cry; they might not. But grief is a process, and our task in this life is to be with those around us in their journey through joy and pain.
  • Jump on the bandwagon when no one else is doing anything. If no one else steps up to the plate, that’s all the more reason to be the better person.

What else?
There is no timeline for grief…it’s different for everyone. There was a great op/ed in the New York Times about this.
Don’t expect the person to be your version of “normal” for a while. I remember someone stopping me in the hallway mere weeks after my dad’s passing. Perhaps I’m a normally cheerful person, but that day was a really tough one and it must have shown on my face. “What’s wrong?!” the person asked, with all good intentions. I actually felt shocked. What’s wrong…? What’s wrong is expecting someone to return to “normal” so quickly when her father is no longer on the planet. That’s a huge adjustment.
“Firsts” are hard and are another opportunity to be there for someone. First Father’s Day, big religious holidays, first birthday, the anniversary of the person’s death. My birthday this month will be tough, because I won’t hear my dad tell me the annually repeated story of my birth: “…and when I first saw you, I cried.” I’ll really miss hearing that story.