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Helping a Friend in Grief


sad woman.jpg"It is important to recognize that helping a grieving friend will not be an easy task. You may have to give more concern, time, and love than you ever knew you had. But this effort will be more than worth it. By 'walking' with your friend in grief, you are giving one of life's most precious gifts -- yourself."

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life Transition

How Can You Help a Grieving Friend?

Your friend has experienced the death of someone they love. You want to help, but you are not sure how you can. This article will help you turn your sympathy into positive actions. The following suggestions have been made by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, noted author, educator, and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado.

1. Listen With Your Heart

Do not worry so much about what you will say to your friend. The main thing you need to provide is your physical presence and desire to listen without judging. Be an active listener. Concentrate on the words and feelings that are being shared with you.

Your friend may tell you the same story of the death repeatedly. Do not say, "You've told me this before," hoping that you will save your friend from unpleasantness. Rather, listen attentively each time the story is told. According to Dr. Wolfelt, "This repetition is part of your friend's healing process." Try to listen and understand.

2. Be Compassionate

Let your friend know he has your permission to express his feelings without fear of judgement or criticism. Learn about loss from your friend. Do not tell him how you think he should respond. Dr. Wolfelt suggests you should think of yourself as "someone who 'walks with,' not 'behind' or 'in front of' the one who is bereaved."

Never try to take away your friend's feelings. He needs to experience all the hurt, sorrow, and pain caused by the death. You may want him to get through his mourning period quickly so that you can have good times together again. You may be uncomfortable with the fact that he is suffering. Realize that this is an unsympathetic and unrealistic attitude.

Do not try to keep your friend from crying. Tears are natural and appropriate. Your friend may find comfort in crying with you in order to express the pain associated with the death.

3. Avoid Cliches

Poorly chosen words, especially cliches, can be painful for your grieving friend. Cliches are trite comments which suggest simple solutions to difficult situations. According to Dr. Wolfelt, comments like, "You're holding up well," "Time heals all wounds," "Think of all you still have to be thankful for," or "Be happy that he's out of his pain," are not constructive. These words are hurtful and make your friend's mourning even more difficult.

4. Understand the Uniqueness of Grief

Never say "I know exactly how you feel," to your friend. Even if you have also experienced the death of someone you love, the circumstances were probably very different. Your friend's grief is unique. No two people will react to the death of a loved one in exactly the same way. Many of the phases of mourning will be similar, but the feelings and emotions can be quite different.

Be patient with your friend. Dr. Wolfelt suggests, "The process of grief takes a long time, so allow your friend to proceed at his or her own pace. Don't force your own timetable to healing. Don't criticize what you believe is inappropriate behavior. And while you should create opportunities for personal interaction, don't force the situation if your grieving friend resists."

5. Offer Practical Help

After the death of someone loved, your friend will have a difficult time keeping up with daily demands. In addition to dealing with grief, your friend will have to organize memorial and funeral services. Offer your help in making necessary phone calls to notify friends and relatives of the death. These calls will probably be very painful for your friend to make herself. Preparing food, washing clothes, and cleaning the house are other practical ways of showing your love and support. Be sensitive enough to perceive when your friend wants to be alone or just with the family. Offer your help but do not force it. And remember that your presence and support is needed in the weeks and months ahead, not just at the time of the death.

6. Make and Keep Contact

Your presence at the funeral is very important. Make whatever arrangements are necessary in order to attend. The ritual of the funeral will give you an opportunity to show your love and concern. Dr. Wolfelt says, "As you pay tribute to a life that is now passed, you have a chance to support grieving friends and family. At the funeral, a touch of your hand, a look in your eye, or even a hug often communicates more than any words could ever say."

Be careful not to lose contact after the funeral. It will be important to your friend to know that you are still thinking about him. Remain available. Your friend may need you much more in the months after the funeral than at the time of the death.

7. Write a Personal Note

Sympathy cards are appreciated, but do more than just sign your name. Your personal written words will be meaningful. Share a happy memory of the person who died. Relate the person's special qualities and characteristics that you admired. Dr. Wolfelt says, "These words will often be a loving gift to your grieving friend, words that will be reread and remembered for years.

Be sure to use the name of the person who died when you write or talk to your friend. Hearing the name will be comforting. It will show your friend that you will not forget this special person who was an important part of your friend's life.

8. Be Aware of Birthdays and Anniversaries

Your friend will have a hard time getting through special days like birthdays or anniversaries. These events will further emphasize the loss of the person who has died. The grief process will be intensified on these important days. Respect your friend's pain and never try to take it away with distractions or superficial comments.

It is sometimes helpful to create new traditions to recognize these events. For example, on the birthday of the person who died, your friend may want to visit the burial site and then go to one of the person's favorite spots, like a park or museum. Perhaps you can offer to help organize such a remembrance. A card or phone call on the special day will be appreciated.

9. Understand the Importance of the Loss

Do not try to reduce the significance of your friend's loss. The death of someone loved is a shattering experience. Because of the death, your friend has been forced to reconstruct his life. Be continually gentle and compassionate in all your efforts to help.


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