“A friend’s wife has passed away, what should I say to him?” “A friend’s father has passed away, how can I help her?” Several people have asked me these and similar questions.
Death is a taboo in our society. It is difficult to talk about. And even more so when its presence is directly affecting us or someone close to us. So how do we talk to someone who is currently going through the loss of a loved one?”
Sometimes it seems as if we suddenly become afraid to look our friend who is in this situation in the eye. Not because we don’t want to help them. Quite the opposite. We want to help, but we don’t know how to react. What does he want to hear? What does he not want to hear? What should we tell him? What should we ask?
It is quite normal to feel nervous or confused in this situation. After all, this topic is unpleasant and still shrouded in a veil of secrecy. At the beginning, it is important to take a deep breath and realize that no matter what we say or do, we cannot bring the deceased back among the living. And the person who is experiencing this loss knows that very well. They don’t expect miracles from us. By doing so, we can remove the burden of unreasonable and excessive expectations and offer what we can actually give.
So what can we give? Actually, it can vary from person to person. Each of us knows how to react to such a situation differently, and similarly, each survivor needs something different. Some may take less time to cope with the loss, while others may take longer. Someone needs distraction and relaxation, while another needs to be alone. Someone else feels a strong need to talk about it, while another needs to be quiet but with someone close by their side.
Above all, I consider it most important not to push the person into an activity that we think might help them without verifying whether it will actually be useful and tolerable for them. It may seem to us that they need to be distracted and come up with other thoughts. However, they may perceive it completely differently. They may go to the planned event with us, but they may be even more troubled than if they had talked to you calmly at home or went together to the cemetery. The needs of mourners may often seem incomprehensible to us, but let’s try to respect them. This is actually the most we can offer them. And what next?
Despite our efforts to be brave, sometimes we may feel awkward in certain situations. You don’t have to be afraid to be honest and admit it. A simple sentence like “I heard about your mother/that your mother passed away. I’m sorry… I don’t know what to say, but I’d like to help you. What can I do for you?” expresses our sympathy, interest, and gives the person the opportunity to express their needs.
Don’t impose anything
But how can we find out what this person actually wants and needs? It’s a tough question with a simple answer. We can simply ask if and how we can help. Let’s show our concern and willingness to help. However, let’s also accept that the person may not want to use our help. It’s also normal if they don’t know what they actually want at the moment, whether to be alone or with someone, to talk about things or not.
Don’t trivialize the situation
The process of grieving doesn’t have a prescribed form, and as I mentioned earlier, everyone copes with loss a little differently and needs something different. However, there’s definitely something you should avoid, and that’s trivializing the situation. Statements like “it will be okay” don’t belong here. Also, if you’re not sure that you share the same religious beliefs and their depth with the person, avoid statements about God’s will and that the deceased is already in a better place. Actually, avoid them even if you share the same beliefs. However, if the bereaved person comes up with similar thoughts, don’t ignore them.
Endure crying and emotions
Watching someone cry is difficult and uncomfortable. However, we should not stop the sufferer from experiencing their emotions by telling them not to cry. They have lost someone close and have the right to cry. Moreover, our “don’t cry” will not stop their tears anyway. Instead, the person may feel that their tears and negative feelings are undesirable to us, and they will suffer alone rather than bothering us. That is not what we want. Although it is difficult, let us learn to share tears with them. It is much more useful than trying to stop them. Instead, let us sit beside them, tell them to cry if they need to, confirm that their feelings are normal in this situation, or hug and comfort them.
It is natural that the grieving process will not end overnight and may take a long time. Even if we feel that “it has been a long time” and “they should be somewhere else by now,” let us not pressure the grieving person into something they are not ready for. Let us be there for them. Let them experience things as they are and be patient with their feelings, even if it is sometimes challenging. Also, do not pressure them to “look to the future right now” – after a severe loss, they may not see any future and, most importantly, they need to come to terms with the present. The future will come in its own time.
Keep curiosity in check
Death is as terrifying as it is fascinating. Therefore, we may be curious about certain details surrounding the departed’s passing. However, let us keep our curiosity in check. This situation is about the survivors, not us. Re-explaining the details can be very hurtful and unpleasant for the person. If they want to, they will tell us about it themselves.
Assistance with practical matters
In addition to dealing with the loss of a loved one, the bereaved must take care of many things. The funeral, wake, inheritance proceedings, and arranging other matters are additional stressful circumstances that the bereaved must deal with and for which they may welcome our help. If we can help them in this area, we should let them know that they can turn to us if needed.
For the person affected by the loss, it may also be challenging to perform everyday activities. Grocery shopping, cooking, eating, or even falling asleep can become seemingly insurmountable problems. If necessary, you can also be helpful in these activities.
Of course, I must reiterate that people are diverse, their behaviors and needs are different. This article describes only some general tips that can provide a kind of small guide on how to talk about death with the bereaved and how you can help them, and it is possible that another expert would look at the situation a little differently. Likewise, as I wrote above, each grieving person needs something different to cope with the loss, and a different amount of time. Therefore, perceive their needs and respect them. And that is actually the basis of everything.