What To Say... How To Help
"The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of confusion or despair, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing... not curing... that is a friend indeed."
So your best friend just lost her teenage son in a car wreck... What a tragedy! You are just devastated and so saddened by the news.
But, Geez! What do you say to your friend? How can you possibly help or lessen her pain for her? Well, you can't, but there are things you can say or do to provide genuine support for a fellow human in need.
And there are some things you should never say to a bereaved person.
So what is the best way to express sympathy when a friend or loved one has suffered a tragic loss? What should you say to them? How best to lend support or offer to help?
Many bereaved people have reported that certain things said or done by those offering sympathy had a great impact on them... either positive or negative. We present in this section a guide to help you out with one of life's most difficult challenges... expressing sympathy.
Read on for some useful guidelines:
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Let's face it. Bereavement is simply a sensitive, awkward subject. Yes, you do care, and yes, you want to help... but how? How can you really help this person out?
Well, the answer is that you can't. What you can do is lend an ear, provide support, and just let them know you care. You really cannot fix anything for them, so don't even try. What you can do is offer to help in some way... and make good on the offer. Oftentimes, you might hear a sympathetic friend say "Just call if you need anything". This lets them off the hook. They express blanket offers of help, then exit the scene as quickly as possible.
The only problem is that offer of help, even if sincere, leaves the burden on the bereaved. Not only are they too distraught to sort out who offered to help, they don't even know if it was a sincere offer. So they won't call, even if they really could use some practical help.
Instead, we propose the following approach if you want to help your friend out: instead of saying "call me if you need anything," say "I could help by (cutting the grass this Friday, or taking the kids for the weekend, or picking up people at the airport for you)".
Let them know of a particular (and useful) task you would be willing to provide, and offer to do it. Then follow up! Call a few days later and offer again, making sure to name a specific date and time "if that's convenient for you". An example: "I would like to bring over dinner on Wednesday if that's convenient".
The reality is that most any bereaved person could use a little help with household chores or funeral arrangements. In times of early bereavement, just keeping the household going can be overwhelming. Simple but important tasks just don't seem that important. If you really want to help the family out, this is how you can.
HOW TO HELP
A BEREAVED FAMILY OR FRIEND
- Take over a Honey Bak'd Ham, or a plate of sandwiches... hand it to them in person, with a hug.
- Bake 3 dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies.
- Offer to clean up the place for them... and do it (yes, even the bathroom).
- Spend an evening playing cards with them, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle or art project.
- Make a list of all their sympathy gifts, who gave what, and offer to help write thank you cards.
- Take the kids to the zoo, bowling or the movies.
- Take the bereaved person out for a walk in the fresh air. Let him talk and don't interrupt.
- Sit them down to help pay the bills and balance the checkbook.
- Help them make a "to-do" list for the coming week.
- Let them know you are bringing over a spaghetti dinner one night, complete with salad and garlic bread.
- Offer a big hug and let them cry on your shoulder... and don't tell them "everything will be alright".
- If you feel that your friend is "losing it" and unable to cope or function, or using drugs or too much alcohol to cope, urge them to get professional help, and help them find the resources. (Books, support groups, counseling).
- Cut and trim the lawn. Rake the leaves. Wash the car.
- Help make a grocery list, then go do the shopping for them.
- Even if you have "been there for them", a written letter or note of condolence can also be a helpful and comforting gesture. (See the section on sympathy letters, or send one of our comforting sympathy cards).
- Send or deliver in person a thoughtful sympathy gift.
- (Later in bereavement): Take your friend out to dinner or a movie. Don't abandon them because you might feel a little awkward. Bereavement takes a long time. Be patient and let your friend know you will be there for the long haul. Never tell them you think it is time for them to move on. Grief is personal and each person has her own private timetable for her "griefwork".
Although he may not express his thanks to you right now, your friend will always remember you were there to help them weather the storm.
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