Marriage and Family Therapist
Julie Cohen is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist MFT and a Child Mental Health Specialist with a private practice in Los Angeles. Her areas of focus include: depression, anxiety, panic, post-traumatic stress, bipolar…
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What to Do and Say When a Friend is Grieving
Posted in Anxiety by Julie Cohen on Feb 03, 2009

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. 

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23
I'd like to add to the list of things NOT to say to a grieving person. Do not ask, "Were you close?" This is like asking, "Oh, did it matter to you?" I have gotten that question countless times from people when they hear that I lost my sister. For some reason, people seem to think that a person does not get impacted by the loss of a sibling. It hurts over and over again, as though I have give them specific examples of how much I hurt before they offer their condolences.
By nyk1  Jul 13, 2010
22
NTXFMS,
Thank you. That was so well written, I am tempted to print it out and mail it to everyone I know. I was downsized from my job then end of June, lost my husband the day after Thanksgiving and my mother-in-law 2 weeks ago. I am 51 and alone. My children and grandchildren all live far way. Friends and family just don't seem to know what to do or say...your post says it all and more. Thank you!
By needsomecheeringup  Feb 08, 2009
21
BehaveWell, that is a lovely story. Thank you for sharing it.
By Appleby  Feb 06, 2009
20
How to Help Your Loved Ones Who Are Grieving...

Mention the deceased's name... Dont ignore it. Mention them by name. They are thinking about them. Your mention of them doesn't force them to remember, as the passed one has an elephant in the room.
When you send a card, always mention something you thought of about the departed. Any memory will do.
Let them cry, scream, cuss, mourn. It won't last forever. It will have lasting effects on your friendship.
Give them freedom to do what they feel they need to do.
Remember the departed's anniversary of the date of death, their birthday, their wedding anniversary, etc.
These dates are hard to deal with. Generally, grievers are depressed then, and need someone to hear them.
Help with the children. Just take them away, often as possible so your friend has a mental break! It's needed!
Call. Keep your invitations the same they were prior. Go to lunch, movies, dinner, whatever. Don't change now!
Pray for them.
Cook for them. Take them your leftovers. Too many times, nutrition needs are ignored in dealing with their emotional turmoil!
Remember them at ALL holidays--- birthdays, Christmas, VALENTINES!!! They are no longer the ones being celebrated, receiving gifts, etc. Would you be lonely? Ponder that!
L-I-S-T-E-N!
Seek opportunities to be a helpmate. It is humbling, male or female, to ask for every thing you need help with.
DO NOT be threatened by their new "single" status. They wish they weren't single! They want your friendship, only!
DO NOT try to fix their problem.
DO NOT set them up on a date-- no matter how long it has been.
DO NOT tell them, "Its been long enough... You can remarry... I know how you feel.... When my cat died, or my uncle died.... blah blahh blahhh.... You can have another baby... Time heals all wounds." These pathetic cliches do not help the grieving. It only angers them.

The key things you can do to be most helpful:
Be there for them! Do not ignore them.
CRY with them.
PRAY.
LISTEN.
By NTXFMS  Feb 06, 2009
19
One of my dearest friends gave birth to her only child... a beautiful baby girl with severe health problems. Two years later this beautiful child died. My friend was grief stricken. The funeral was sad but also a celebration of this child's life. Last year my friend adopted a 2 year old girl from China and yes my friend will always remember her baby girl but I'm so happy that she found a child who needed her desperately and I can't think of a better parent to mother this lonely toddler than my friend. The little girl is flourishing under the guidance and love of my friend.
By BehaveWell  Feb 06, 2009
18
What to say when a young child dies ... that is very hard. I have friends who welcomed a baby boy after many years of prayer and 9 weeks later he died of massive cancer with which he was born. There really is nothing you can say except *I am so sorry for your great loss.* I made a contribution in honour of the baby to one of the childrens charities they had been actively supporting, that helps parents which children whose illness is terminal, and they found that comforting. The one thing you never want to say is what my pastor said when I had a miscarrige. *You can try again.* As if one child can replace another! He admitted it was a stupid thing to say and apologized.
By Appleby  Feb 05, 2009
17
I just lost my beloved niece 10 days ago in a dwi car accident. The feeling of helplessness is awful. I do appreciate words of comfort and condolence cards, and even find myself resenting those people who are my friends and haven't sent a card or picked up the phone. One friend of many years said "she didn't want to get me upset". Just acknowledging a person's loss and their feelings is enough. No one expects you to do anything more. This was a good article. I wonder if one of my DS friends requested it. I've found so many wonderful people on here. Thank you for addressing the issue.
Elaine xx
By lanie516  Feb 05, 2009
16
As a grieving widow, I can tell you that "May you find comfort in their memories" is not the way to go. We don't want memories right now. We want them back. "you are not alone", and "we will help you by doing X,Y,Z - be specific" are the best things to say at this time.
By Skitwin  Feb 05, 2009
15
anniversaries of losing a loved one can be hard, too. today is the anniversary of my mom's death, and tho its been a long time, it still is a hard day for me.
sometimes just understanding that, when grieving, we aren't 'in our right mind' can help. maybe we are a bit too snappy or quiet or whatever... just try to understand that we are going thru something very emotional, and rational isn't in our vocabulary.
i think asking what you can do is good, but sometimes we need someone to just step in and do it. if you see something, even something small like washing the dishes or sweeping the floor, that needs to be done, just do it. when we grieve we feel so overwhelmed that even the smallest of tasks are monumental. its nice for someone to just 'do it'.
great article.. thanks for your thoughts and for opening the door for discussion on this topic.
By tadlem  Feb 05, 2009
14
Thank for for this wonderful article...sadly I just lost a dear friend and expect to loose a few more sometime soon...
By FlyingMonkey  Feb 05, 2009
13
Julie: your article is informative. However, I'd welcome comments of what can be said when a friends young son is gonna die soon (terminal Leukemia) & geography & money prevents me from being there My friend is uncle to my son & we;ve been buds (more like family) for 35 years I would truly aPPRECIATE SOME WORDS to say (i'll send a card) I dread answering the phone when he calls for fear that it's THE call
TY
God Bless
chip
By chipchip  Feb 05, 2009
12
SafeNSerene, you reminded me of what a wonderful friend did for me after my mom died. I had been gone a month handling everything and when I got back, she handed me gift bag that had the most snuggly pair of pjs, some chocolates, a good book and a few little other comfort things. It was the perfect thing to do.
By MyTrueColors  Feb 04, 2009
11
To me the worst thing a person can say is "I know how you feel" They may indeed know how you feel depending on if they have experienced the same thing, but most people dont want to hear it as it is "their time" to grieve. I lost my husband and grandson within 7 weeks of each other, I dont think anyone knew how I "felt" as it is a very personal thing to lose a love one. The best thing you can do is be there, and let them know when you say " Can I do anything" that you really mean it. Also grief isnt just around for a few months sometimes it takes years to recover. I hate when people says "Oh she'll get over it". You never "get over it" you just learn to live with it. Marty
By martyh1950  Feb 04, 2009
10
I have lost my Daddy, my Uncle and my Auntie since October 2008 and I am feeling low and depressed and without energy. I didnt realize it showed until my boss said *Why dont you take tomorrow off just for yourself?* It was just like she handed me a cold glass of water on a hot day. It was just what I needed. I agree that if someone is grieving, offers of concrete help are better than just *if you need anything* -- or ask *What can I do?* or *Sit down and let me do that.* Or maybe *Can I make you a cup of tea?* And if the weather is decent you might ask, *Would you like to go for a walk and have a coffee?* Maybe you wont say a word during the whole time but your presence is a refreshment and if you want to talk it is good to have someone who will listen sympathetically and not say anything unless you want her to.

I have a friend who loves to read aloud. He asked me if I would like him to read something to me, and I picked one of the books I had loved as a child. It was very soothing.
By Appleby  Feb 04, 2009
9
I live in New York, my mom is sick in Los Angeles. I have been so blessed by old friends of mine from high school that drive up and visit with her, a 45 mile trip each way, and report back to me. They have lunch, run errands, etc. and then let me know that everything is taken care of so I can concentrate on work my responsibilities here. I will be moving back home to California April 1, but I am so relieved to have this help in the meanwhile. It is true that we often learn who our friends are in moments of need, and I have been so pleased and surprised at how many angles have come out of the wood work in the City of Angeles. I can't wait to get back and treasure each day.
By nycflyer  Feb 04, 2009
8
This brings to mind when my mother was terminally ill and a former colleague asked "Is there anything I can do?" as I was overwhelmed with children, home, work, taking care of both of my parents, siblings, etc.

So, I said, "well, my car needs to be washed" and bless her heart, she came by and said, "Can I borrow your car for a couple of hours?" and she took it and had it washed and detailed, inside and out... AND, left a nice gift of microwaveable meal, salad and dessert for me, when she brought my car back. I thought I would cry, that is the nicest thing someone actually did for me. It felt so much better to be in a clean car and to have a 'night off' from worrying about what was for dinner. This was really special to me.

I don't think it hurts to 'ask' for something if it isn't a real big ticket item, if you are grieving, or have lots to take care of during a terminal illness. I understand that when you are actually mourning the death, it is difficult to think, so, perhaps 'make lists' of things that need to be done and that you don't have the spirit to take care of that, perhaps, a close friend or relative could do for you. I think it makes them feel valued, as well.
By SafeNSerene  Feb 04, 2009
7
Your comments are right on. You stated exactly what might be said to a grieving person and also that others cannot "fix" a mourner. Grief is a process that can't be hurried. A friend or relatives' presence is often the best thing to do for a griever. Mourners often say that after an initial period friends often stop calling and stop showing support.. It is very helpful to continue phone calls and visits in the months to come.
By LanyL  Feb 04, 2009
6
Thank you for sharing that. loses take a diffrent time to get over.
to-mytruecolors-the person(s) who said "just get over it ". sounds so harsh. they probably did not have a loss or they were told the samething. From personal experience loss happens in diffrent points of our lives and with different reactions for each loss. A person may seem better but I believe you don't get over it in a specific time. The grief variers with time.. special dates like anniversaries, birthdays, the day the person died may bring back feeling (all kinds)for many years to come. eventually it's memories and good feelings with some sadness(at least that is how it is for me) everyone is diffrent in how they grieve and because you may have had an experience with it and had one type of reaction doesn't mean the other person will follow that order of grief. Beeing there for the person is so important. If distance is an issue -- call and email keep in touch -- don't get upset if the your friend doesn't always answer your emails or phone calls right away just keep in contact with them and let them know you care in whatever way you can. zecilkl
By ZECILKL  Feb 04, 2009
5
Julie I have to agree with what u say esp if u are in the area of a grieving friend. One point not touched and may need to be is what if the person grieving is an internet friend mere words do not seem to be enough to express your care and concern how do u let them know u are there for them and not sound offhanded or meaningless?
By battyelf  Feb 04, 2009
4
This is a really hard one to answer. When my brother committed suicide, the last thing I wanted to hear what that this will pass in time, or are you ok? I know it was their way of being nice, but really what do you say to someone that is going threw grief? So, when my friends friend died I just held her and said nothing unless I was asked and then I would respond..good luck with this..janeanne
By janeanned  Feb 03, 2009

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