I was sitting in worship service on a bright San Diego Sunday morning enjoying the sermon when the Pastor stated, “Nancy Reagan died this morning.” I was really into the message about serving God while you have time, so it took my brain a minute to register what he said. Wait, what? Nancy Reagan is dead? Immediately, I felt this tug in my chest and recognized I felt a pinch of sadness which surprised me. I did not know her personally, after all I was only a child when she became First Lady of California. I was entering adulthood when she became First Lady of the United States. I realize my tug, my pinch, is nothing compared to the sorrow of those who loved and was loved by her. Then I reflected on how difficult it is to find the right words of comfort for someone who is grieving. I discovered this article by Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative which gave six tips on what to say to someone who is grieving. We know nothing will take the pain away but it helps to be able share it with someone who shows they care. A shared pain creates a healing moment and for that segment of time it gets a little better. And that healing moment helps the hurting make it, one moment at a time.
Six Helpful Things You Can Do/Say if Someone You Know Is Grieving:
1. Ask, “How are you doing?” Then listen patiently to the answer without changing the subject or terminating the conversation. Create a safe space for them to talk about their experience if they would like to. You might feel honored that they trusted you enough to give an honest answer if it’s something other than “Fine.”
2. Say that you just found out about their loss. Rather than the obligatory “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sorry that your marriage didn’t work out for you,” try this instead: “I can’t imagine what this is like for you,” followed by “How are you doing?” Everyone’s grief is different. Even if you’ve experienced loss, you don’t know how they feel. Let them tell you about it in their own words.
3. Stay away from offering clichés like, “You were lucky to have the time you had,” “She’s with the angels now,” etc. It doesn’t help to have you try to rationalize away someone’s grief. If you’re not sure what to say, go back to tip #2 above.
4. “I’d like to help. Would you like me to __________?” Insert specific tasks that you are willing to do that you think might be helpful. You could suggest something like “mow the lawn, walk the dog, watch the baby, sit with you, help you clear the garage,” etc. Then show up and do it if the answer is “Yes.” Try to avoid the offhand, “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” No one believes you really mean it and that puts the burden on the griever to think of something for you to do. They don’t have the energy for that.
5. When someone cries in front of you, all you have to do is stay put and say something in a soothing voice like, “It’s OK….let that out….I’m here for you.” Comforting them with a touch on the arm or a hug is great too. Just do your best to stay present and don’t try to “fix” it. Don’t hand them a tissue unless they ask for it. The tears will come to a natural completion of their own accord.
6. Do your best to keep your relationship intact. Avoiding a grieving person because it’s uncomfortable for you to be with them is hard for them. You can imagine the feelings of isolation they would be feeling if everyone in their lives reacted this way. It’s OK to say the name of the person that is gone. It’s OK to ask what happened. It’s OK to talk about the strangeness of it all. It’s even OK to cry in front of them or with them. Your silence and avoidance is what’s really painful.