I got a call from a friend of mine earlier this week who told me that a friend of the family was killed in a car accident. As a therapist, it is assumed that I am supposed to know what to do and say in that kind of situation. But always, no matter how many times I hear news of someone who has died I struggle to find the "right words." I think that there is an inherent sense of helplessness that everyone feels when someone dies.
It's human nature to want to help or fix a problem when a friend or loved one comes to us with their pain. But, when someone dies there is nothing to "fix." Often we find ourselves struggling to make it better and to no avail relieve suffering.
Many cultures and religions have rituals that are by design in place to help manage that sense of helplessness. For instance, a Jewish tradition is to sit "Shiva" when someone dies. During this week long ritual, friends and loved ones gather and pray twice a day. It gives everyone a chance to express their grief as well as participate in a structured way to support the bereaved.
Other secular rituals include bringing food to the home of the bereaved. Also, visiting the home and providing a good ear, telling funny and poignant stories about the deceased and offering to help out around the house. It is usually anticipated that visitors will just drop by unannounced but you may want to call before showing up in case they have established certain visiting hours.
As a friend of someone who is grieving what's most important is just to show up and lend support. There is nothing that you have to say or do. Typically, just your presence is helpful beyond words. If you are struggling to find the right words, usually something short and simple is best. This includes, "I'm so sorry for your loss," "My condolences" and "May you find comfort in their memories." Although some phrases may sound cliché they will be accepted with love and gratefulness.