In 2021, an organization called Experience Camps commissioned a Harris Poll on the subject of grief. The non-profit, which hosts free summer getaways for children who have recently lost a family member to death, wanted to know the state of mourning in America. Are we comfortable when people grieve publicly? Do different social and cultural groups grieve differently or offer divergent grief support? What do we say when people are grieving, if anything? The poll’s results were illuminating, if not surprising.
“It’s striking that 89 percent of Americans agree that everyone should learn to talk about grief, yet 70 percent don’t have the skills they need, saying they’re often unsure what to do or say when someone they care about is grieving,” said Sara Deren, Experience Camps’ founder and CEO, of the poll’s findings.
Striking is, indeed, the right word. If you’ve experienced grief, whether due to job loss, illness, or the death of a loved one, you know that while those who offer support are well-meaning, they’re not always well-spoken… at least, not when it comes to comforting a person in pain. There are many possible reasons for this: fear of crossing an intimacy boundary; fear of saying the wrong thing; fear of confronting one’s own mortality. These are all legitimate concerns, of course, and they likely explain why, instead of making space for our friend’s suffering, we go into problem-solving mode — a state wherein we approach suffering as something to be fixed or solved. We may become paralyzed, awkward, and even absent when we aren’t able to solve or fix things.
So what should you do instead? The first step is to simply show up. While it’s impossible to take the pain of loss away, you can create a comfortable space for your friend to share their feelings. (Anyone who has suffered a loss can attest to the fact that just being there is what matters most.) Beyond being there, the type of support you offer will vary depending on the nature of the loss and the person experiencing it.
We spoke to grief experts to find out how to get more comfortable supporting friends in pain. Below are their recommendations.
If they’re grieving…
Assess Your Comfort Level
We’ve all felt unsure about what to say or do when someone we care about has suffered a loss. “First, ask yourself how you’re most comfortable communicating,” suggests expert Robbie Miller Kaplan. “Are you okay having a direct conversation or are you more of a behind-the-scenes person who can, say, coordinate meals for the bereaved? Whatever your style is, remind yourself that it is helpful and reach out that way.”
Offer Very Specific Help
Rather than ask someone if there’s anything you can do, which is vague and can make them feel like a burden, offer concrete help, suggests expert Joyce Aitken. “For example, you might say, ‘I go to the supermarket every Tuesday. Give me your shopping list; I’d love to pick up a few things for you.’” Whether you offer to get the oil changed in their car or mow their lawn, specific gestures make it easy for them to say yes.
Identify Hidden Loss
“Many forms of grief involve the gap between the life we’re living and the one we expected to live,” says expert Phyllis Kosminsky, Ph.D. “If someone loses their dream job, support them without minimizing their struggle.” You might say that while it may take time to find a new job, you’ll help them in any way you can. “Grief is caused by the loss of anything precious to us, and just knowing this will help you help others.”
If they’re sick…
Avoid this metaphor
Often, our first reaction is to withdraw from someone who’s sick because it is scary, but the number-one thing to do is make yourself available to them, says Kosminsky, who urges us to avoid using a common metaphor about “fighting” disease. “So many people feel like if they don’t get better, they’ve failed those who told them they should ‘fight.’ Instead, show your support by saying something like, ‘I hate that you have to go through this, and I’ll be by your side as much as you want me to be.’”
Send Care to the Caregiver
Sometimes showing up for loved ones who are ill means showing up for their caregivers. “Years ago, when I was taking care of my mother, one of her friends called me to say, ‘I have an hour on Tuesdays — why don’t I come by and read to your mom so you can run errands?’ It was such a gift to me,” shares Kaplan, who says just giving someone your time is invaluable.
Remember Three Key Words
When in doubt about what to say, Kominsky recommends using the acronym LAW: Listen, acknowledge, and wish. “To validate their feelings, listen and acknowledge what they’ve said, such as, ‘I know when you got this diagnosis, you felt blindsided.’” Then convey your wish: “I wish there was something I could do to take the pain away,” she encourages. “It takes a courageous heart to sit with someone in pain, but it means everything.”
We will all, at alternating points throughout our lives, be caregivers and those to whom care is given. A good starting point for determining how to offer support is to consider the support you’d want if it was you who was in pain. This, it turns out, is the foundation of empathy and compassion, and the starting point for supporting a friend or loved one who’s hurting.
Our Expert Panel
- Robbie Miller Kaplan, author of How to Say It When You Don’t Know What to Say, is a leading authority on difficult conversations.
- Joyce Aitken, author of Sincere Condolences: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say, is an advocate for grief and mental health awareness.
- Phyllis Kosminsky, PhD, is a social worker and adjunct Professor of Social Work at Fordham University, whose work focuses on grief, loss and trauma.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.