The Montfort Group

How to support a friend through loss

As a therapist, I often sit with grieving people and help them navigate the challenges of life after loss. I have supported clients, as they cope and heal from losing loved ones, pets, relationships, jobs, childhood dreams, and even a sense of normalcy in our ever more stressful and unpredictable world.

As a friend, however, I have fumbled. When people close to me experienced losses recently, I failed to show up for them in the way I would have liked. On one occasion I chose to keep a distance to “give them space” and dropped off a “care package” instead of reaching out in person; on another, I expressed my sympathy with words that sounded like hollow cliches. Both situations were awkward, neither reflected my deep love and profound sorrow. Why did I fail to communicate how I truly felt? I have clinical skills, I understand the psychology of grief, I’ve attended trainings and seminars on coping with loss. And yet, when the people I care about were grieving, I struggled to respond appropriately. I felt confused and powerless.

That’s because the stakes in personal relationships are extremely high. When the people we love are in pain, our wonderfully human instincts to fix, to cheer up, and to take away their suffering kick in. None of those are possible with loss, and thus not helpful. In fact, even with the best intentions, attempting to offer a solution or point out the silver lining could leave a grieving friend feeling like you are either diminishing their struggle, or that their pain is simply too much for you to bear. As psychotherapist and grief expert, Megan Devine put it “Some things cannot be fixed; they can only be carried.”

So, how can we help friends and loved ones carry their pain and survive grief? I offer some tips that I have personally implemented in my own life. Hope you will find useful as well.

Be there – grief can be a very lonely experience. Show up for your friends, find meaningful ways to be present in their lives and reassure them you are ready to do whatever is necessary. The specific words and gestures will depend on the nature and closeness of the relationship. Whether you physically sit with them or send handwritten notes, leave VMs, or text regularly, continue to check in without expecting acknowledgement. Their silence would not mean they do not appreciate the love or reject the attention.

Be proactive – grief is overwhelming. A grieving person lacks the physical energy, the mental capacity, and the desire to figure out what they need and who can help. You can support your friend by stepping in to take care of mundane daily tasks; or you can utilize your skills and expertise to take over important projects for them. Be direct and specific about what you can do and when, and most importantly stick to your word.

Be honest – grief can be intimidating. Watching someone you love experience the devastation of grief is difficult and often disorienting. It could be hard to find the right words and choose the most appropriate response. You will likely get it wrong and fumble, like I did, but rather than retreat in embarrassment, be honest. Acknowledge your limitations and admit the words escape you; and if you handled a situation poorly, own it. For example, “Remember when I said/ did…. I really did not handle that very well/ that wasn’t very helpful for you/ I could see my…hurt you/ I made things awkward, etc…I’m sorry” , “I’m here for you and will try to do better,… be more helpful”.

Be real – the pain of grief is excruciating but forced gratitude and fake positivity will only diminish your friend’s experience without providing meaningful relief. Rather than try to lift your grieving friend’s spirit with empty words, get down in the ditch with them; be ready to listen and to hold them as they crumble, catch them as they collapse. M. Devine suggests saying something like “This sounds terribly hard. Is there anything that would be comforting or nurturing that I can bring you?” or simply “This sounds really difficult”. In times of struggle, we all just want to be heard and supported.

Be accepting – grief is a very uniquely personal experience. Honor your friend’s process by allowing them to do it in their own way. Well-meaning suggestions and prescriptions for how best “to move on”, “find closure”, or overcome sadness will likely be received as judgments. Remember, your job is to help them carry the sadness and survive that excruciating pain, not to make them “feel better” or teach them how to grieve differently.

Be the gatekeeper – a common feature of grief is disconnection from the world. Daily life and casual social interactions can become too much. You can advocate for your friend’s needs, protect them from “curious outsiders”, shield them from unhelpful comments, and even educate others about how best to provide support. 

Be a supporting actor – keep the focus on the person and their loss and avoid grief comparisons. When caring for friends, we sometimes give in to the impulse to talk about similar experiences we have had ourselves or have heard about. We really want to normalize a friend’s experience and connect more deeply to what they are going through. Unfortunately, by introducing our personal stories of loss, especially early in the process, we might hijack their grief, or worse, create a grief hierarchy. Every loss is significant.

No two experiences of the same event are the same. One could never know what another is going through. What we do know, however, is what it feels to be sad, heartbroken, or discouraged, and that’s where the opportunity for a deeper connection lies. 

You might think all these suggestions make sense but wonder whether you will be able to apply them in moments of deep pain and despair. You may or may not get it right on the first try. What matters is that you remember the most important support task is to make a grieving friend feel heard, validated, and cared for. Life offers countless opportunities to practice. We have daily interactions with people who are having a hard time for various reasons. When others share difficult experiences, listen with compassion and curiosity; help those around you carry the unfixable. A genuine and tender “That sounds hard” is often enough.

 

Gergana Markov, MBA, MS, LPC

Gergana Markov, MBA, MS, LPC

I am a National Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas. I received my Masters of Science in Counseling from Southern Methodist University and also hold a Masters in Business Administration from Georgia State University. I had a successful career in real estate acquisitions, corporate marketing, and advertising prior to becoming a counselor. My clinical training and experiences include counseling individuals, couples, and groups in various treatment settings, including private practice, community clinics, and hospitals. I am an EMDR trained therapist and utilize trauma-informed interventions in my practice. Additionally, I have specialized training in parent-child dynamics, gender and sexuality issues, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Safe Conversations for couples and communities. I am also a passionate LGBTQ+ ally.

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