How to Treat a Grieving Person

by Molly Kruse

Grief is a universal process—we all experience it sooner or later. It's a natural response to losing something beautiful and necessary and important in our lives.

So why is it often so hard to know how to respond to someone else when they’re grieving? I’ve felt myself freeze up countless times when I’m around a person who has just experienced loss. I try and fail to come up with ways to help them. I wrack my brain, attempting to figure out how a decent human being would behave in this situation.

What’s even worse, though, is being on the receiving end of utterly misplaced good intentions when you’re grieving. In past efforts to comfort me, people have actually started crying themselves, telling me about their own hardships, prying too far into my personal life, and comparing my life to theirs—leaving me feeling misunderstood, uncomfortable, and depressed.

No one meant to make me feel this way. Everyone, when speaking to a grieving person, just wants to help. But what makes grief complicated is that everyone experiences it differently, and has different needs that must be met. Some people crave community, while others (like me) require solitude to reflect and reset. You might need a good cathartic cry, whereas I might need a good laugh to take my mind off my problems.

So, how on earth can you be a stellar friend/partner/human during such a tough and sticky time in your loved one’s life, especially when no two people grieve alike? Below are some tips I’ve compiled from my experience on both sides of the grieving process. Treat them like suggestions rather than rules—after all, everybody is unique and the realm of grief has no one-size-fits-all solution.

       

1. Be present. By not disappearing when the going gets rough, you’re already doing better than approximately half of the people in your loved one’s life. Even if you don’t know what to say or do, just being around shows you care. I don’t wish anyone ill who dropped out of my life while I was grieving. But the fact is, (missing out on grieving means you miss an essential piece of emotional development. Those who weren’t around) just don’t know me anymore. The people who stayed? They’re my sweetest friends to this day.

2. Ask them what they need. And then do it, even if it’s something unglamorous like doing their laundry or getting them Chinese takeout. We all want to play the therapist, but filling people’s mundane needs is every bit as important as helping them psychologically.

3. Ask questions, but don’t pry. A simple “hey, how are you?” invites as little or as much of a response as they feel like giving.

4. Don’t extrapolate or make comparisons from your personal experiences with grief. People grieve differently. Of course you know this, but it’s good to remind yourself of it before you set off on an anecdote about your dead hamster to show how much you can relate. Empathy is always good, but the best way to understand someone is not through the lens of your personal experiences but through what they tell you themselves…if you listen.

5. Don’t try to fix everything or exert control over the situation. A natural response to the chaos and hugeness of loss is to try to control the minutiae of our lives or in the lives of others. It’s a losing battle. You can’t fix death and some losses just can’t be reversed, no matter how many dishes you wash or to-do lists you make. Do the harder thing, and focus on the grieving person in the middle of the mayhem.

6. Don’t underestimate the power of fun. I’m not a person that cries that often. It’s just not my thing. I’m a person who prefers punk concerts and late night ice cream runs and flirting with boys to make me feel better. I’d venture to say there are a lot of people like me. You don’t always need to be a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes all we just need is someone to laugh with.

7. Remember: it’s not about you. Grief is always about the person grieving. It’s easy to think you can be their healer or champion, but really the best you can do is treat the symptoms, not the cause. So do that to the best of your ability, but don't take it personally if you aren’t thanked or appreciated.

8. Accept the person they become. Because grief changes people; sometimes it changes their whole personality. If your loved one is suddenly into things they were never into before, or behaving in a totally novel and confusing way, don’t try to hold them back. Let them grow and change, and love them the way they are right then.

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