I, like most human beings on this planet, at one time or another have been in grief or standing by a loved one in grief. If you’re a regular reader of GMC, then you might know my recent experience with grief through the loss of my baby at 5 months’ pregnant.
Throughout this experience, I saw how difficult it was for some of my friends and loved ones to talk to me about “what had happened”—which is how most people referred to it, because even saying the words “Your baby died” was too hard for them to say and, I believe they felt, too hard for me to hear.
But that was the truth. My baby had died.
And the hard thing was that it happened, not hearing people say it.
This is when it struck me how common the lack of knowing what to say or do is, and reminded me of so many times when I’ve been on the other side, trying to say the right thing, or truly believed I was saying the right thing, only to have it turn out that I wasn’t, or didn’t. And I realized how crucial it is for those of us who have been through the fire to help people to know how to be there for us and for others.
Talking to a friend or a loved one in the midst of the worst time in their life is no easy feat. It requires an incredible amount of empathy, intuitive guesswork, striking a balance to be present yet not intrusive.
There has long been a void when it comes to covering the topic of grief but it is recently being given the attention it deserves with books such as There Is No Good Card For This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell and Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.
I decided to write this article to contribute to the grief conversation after an encounter with a neighbour of mine. She was away for the winter and came back 2 months after my miscarriage. Her grandson and my son play together on the cul-de-sac we live on everyday, and so I saw her every day after she returned.
The elephant in the space between us was enormous—I was pregnant when she left and now I wasn’t—and yet it took her days to mention it. When she did, I could tell how difficult it was for her to bring up. She mustered up the courage to say, as I was leaving, “Honey, before you leave, I have to tell you how sorry I am.” And even though I hadn’t cried in weeks, her words brought me to tears.
She apologized and became immediately worried, telling me how sorry she was that she mentioned it and that she just had to say something because she would have felt bad if she hadn’t.
And that’s when I realized that she was mistaking my tears. I wasn’t crying because I wished she hadn’t brought it up, or that it was too painful to bear. I was crying because I needed to cry, and because her acknowledgment of my loss was so important and meaningful to me.
I needed to be seen by her, and when I was, it allowed me to release yet another layer of grief inside of me. I explained to her, “I’m not upset because you mentioned it. I’m crying because I’m grateful you did.”
Comforting A Grieving Friend
So, although I’m no expert, I’m sharing here what I’ve learned so far from my dance with grief throughout the years and the few golden rules that apply when talking to a friend or loved one in need.
Rule #1: Always, always ask
When you are supporting someone in grief, it can seem that you are better not to mention it. You don’t want to bring it up in case they might be having a good day and then remind them of it.
You don’t want to say the wrong thing. You don’t want to pry. You don’t want to cross a line.
These are all very natural and well-intended feelings of wanting to protect your friend and do the right thing. But what so many of us don’t realize is that by not asking about their loss—by not mentioning it at all—we are not acknowledging them or their pain.
With this approach, you are inadvertently making the person feel invisible, as if their experience is not real, isn’t actually happening, when that’s all they need.
I remember when my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was a huge shock, something I couldn’t quite believe was happening to us. And what I needed most of all was to tell people that it had happened, and for them to hear it. I didn’t necessarily need to talk in depth about it, but I needed to say the words out loud, and I needed people to say them back to me and hear me say them.
As friends of loved ones who are suffering, what we need to remember is that it is impossible that you will be the one to remind them of “it” by bringing it up. Even though they may seem distracted at any given moment, believe me, it is always there, in the back of their mind, in their hearts, and is something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
By mentioning it, you aren’t reminding them of what they are going through. Instead, what you are doing is showing them that you are right there with them as they are experiencing it.
Rule #2: Be specific, in your questions and your deeds.
I made this mistake with a very important friendship many years ago. She and I weren’t in the best place in our friendship, which caused me to tread carefully—too carefully—when she lost her father.
Rather than acknowledging that her father had just died by asking how she was coping with his loss; rather than asking how she was handling having a newborn baby and grieving at the same time (a kind of pain that was, and still is, unfathomable to me); I asked, simply, “How are you doing?”
In my mind, I was giving her the option to talk about it or not, depending on how she felt. I thought that, this way, if she didn’t want to delve into it, she didn’t have to, and if she did, she knew I was there to listen. But the actual result of this tactic, however well-intentioned, was that months later she felt that I had not once asked her specifically how she was dealing with the loss of her father.
At the time, I didn’t understand how she didn’t see that I had been asking. But when I lost my baby, I understood, and I wished very badly that I could go back in time and say to my friend, specifically: “You’ve lost your father. I see that and my heart hurts for you. How are you feeling today? Emotionally, mentally, physically. I want to listen.”
And then there is the part of doing what’s needed for your friend. In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg relays the story of a man who was in the hospital while his child was gravely ill. His friend, rather than asking “Do you want me to bring you dinner?” texted him specifically “What do you not want on a burger?” which narrowed down the choices the man had to make, while also preserving his dignity by not having to ask someone to bring him dinner.
When you are in the grips of dealing with sickness and loss, the last thing you want or can do is make big decisions and, most often, you don’t want to be a burden to people because it’s just one more thing to make you feel helpless in an already helpless situation. So, taking the decision and feeling of burden out of the hands of the grieving one is a way of being there for them.
People going through the thick of it are never going to ask you to bring them dinner, or do their laundry, or mow their lawn, or just come sit with them because they can’t be alone. You, as the friend, need to take the leap of faith and just do it even if you risk being rejected.
You might fumble your words. You might say or do something inane—in fact, you probably will. The person might lash out at you or turn you away. But that’s okay, because at least you are showing up.
And one day, when they are out of the weeds, your loved one will be eternally grateful that you stood in their grief with them and acknowledged it—if imperfectly—rather than avoiding the fact of it happening at all.
Rule #3: Bring your optimism with a side of realism
Optimism is a funny thing when it comes to people who are suffering a loss. Although it may seem that what the person needs is to be reminded that better times will come, or that things aren’t as bad as they seem, it can also feel like you’re trying to gloss over their pain.
If you’re going to bring optimism to the table, it’s best to make sure it comes with a side of realism. Telling a person who is incredibly sad not to cry or not to worry is like telling them not to breathe: It’s impossible to do, and isn’t going to help.
In Option B, Sandberg recalls a time when a colleague was diagnosed with cancer and Sandberg responded with optimism saying, “I know you’re going to be okay”. But the error in that, as she acknowledges in hindsight, is that to a person whose just been given a potentially terminal diagnosis, this is not helpful. The questions that inevitably follow are, “And how do you know I’m going to be okay? I don’t know that. The doctors don’t know that. So how do you?”
But saying something instead, like “I don’t know how this is going to go, but I promise I’ll be there with you every step of the way and you are not alone” lets the person know that you see how awful the situation is, but that at the very least, you are there.
A couple of months after I lost my baby, I mentioned to a friend that I was feeling particularly crappy because I still had about ten pounds of baby weight on me—except this time, I had no baby, and it was making me feel self-conscious and low. Her response was, “Stop! You’re beautiful!”.
But that wasn’t the point. The point was that everyday when I got up to get dressed, I was reminded of what I had lost by the pouch of skin hanging from my abdomen.
I was sad, my self-esteem was in the gutter and I just wanted it gone. I know that she meant well—and I probably would have said the same thing to her—but what I really needed with her optimism was a dose of realism. “That sucks. Baby weight is so tough even when you have a baby, so I can imagine how much worse it is for you. You will work it off in time, and I think you look great. But until you think so too, let’s drink a glass of wine and say f#%kit.”
When in doubt, wine and zero f#%ks is always a good approach.
Rule #4: Take your cue from them
I have another neighbour who I’ve become close with over the years. Her husband died of cancer when her children were 2 and 4 years old. I told her I was writing this piece and asked her what kind of support worked best for her after her husband died.
She told me that, mostly, she just wanted to be left alone with her thoughts, to cry in private, and since she spent so much time in therapy talking about it, when she was out with her friends, she didn’t want to talk about it. She wanted to talk about anything but. Her close family and friends would worry, complaining to her that she didn’t talk to them or cry to them. And her response was that it was because she knew that nothing they were going to say would make her feel better.
Sometimes, this is the case. And then again, sometimes it isn’t. It’s so hard to know at all times what exactly the right thing to do or say to your friend is.So the only thing to do is to put your best foot forward, and then take your cue from them.
If they tell you flat out that they don’t want to talk about it, don’t force them to talk about it because “it will be good for them”. They are telling you in no uncertain terms that it isn’t, at that moment, what they need.
And on the other hand, if they start talking to you about their feelings and what they are grieving about, don’t try to change the subject or perk them up by turning it into a positive. They are asking you to just go there with them. So, if you can, go there with them.
Rule #5: Remember that we are all doing the best we can
To those of you who are currently the loved one of a friend or relative who is suffering, the most important thing to remember is to go easy on yourself. All we can do is our best, and what’s important to remember is that this is affecting you, too, and you’re allowed to feel affected.
If you are hurting alongside your loved one it’s because, well, you love them. And that is a beautiful thing.
And to those in grief, try to remember that the people around you do love you. They won’t always say and do the perfect thing, but they are trying and they want to be there. So please, for your sake, as well as theirs, let them.