Supporting a Friend Through Significant Loss
By: Kamaljit "Sonya" Virdi, Ph.D. | April 9, 2021
The loss of a loved one is the most difficult life experience for many. A significant loss, such as a parent, a child, or partner, can be devastating. Losses that happen abruptly or prematurely can be even more devastating. A person grieving such losses may have difficulty coping with complicated emotions such as anger, sadness, or regret that emerge while making sense of the experience. During this time, the griever needs a tremendous amount of support from friends and family, yet people freeze up feeling uncertain about what to say. Below I list tips on how to support a grieving friend.
No Perfect Words
Let go of the idea that there is a perfect way of expressing condolences to someone who is grieving. Express your support by honestly acknowledging the gravity of the situation. It’s okay that you don’t know exactly what to say but do not let that make you stay silent. Check in with those who are grieving as long as they haven’t indicated they want space. Although grieving people may not always want to talk about the loss, they think about it often. As a supporter, do not be afraid to ask if they want to talk about it.
Limit how much you share about your own experiences of loss. You might be tempted to share as many details as possible about your own experience to relate or help your friend feel less isolated, but it may wind up feeling like a competition about who experienced more pain. Grievers may feel invalidated about their experience, or worse, feel obligated to console you.
Assess how much you have processed your own past losses. If you have experienced a similar loss but haven’t processed it, you might not make a good supporter to your friend. If this sounds like you, then communicate that to your friend. Your friend may appreciate your foresight and transparency. If you are further along in your process, recognize that grief is unique in that no two individuals will grieve the same way. And know that no one can predict the length of time it takes to gain acceptance. In other words, what worked for you might not work for them. Let the griever guide you and know that they can ask you more questions about your loss or how you dealt with it at their own pace.
Avoid toxic positivity, the mindset of being positive in all situations. Putting a positive spin on a significant loss can hurt the person you are trying to help. Avoid saying things like “Time heals” or “She’s in a better place now.” The griever will make their own meaning about the loss, but this takes time and can be difficult. If your positivity comes from religion, recognize that the griever may hold different beliefs than you do, or they may question their faith due to the loss.
Type of Communication
Do not rely solely on text messaging as your way of supporting a friend through significant loss. Call or see them in person to provide support. Whatever the form of communication, vary up what you say. Most people ask a griever, “How are you doing?” and most grievers at some point are annoyed by the question because they are often not doing well.
Acknowledge that it’s not personal; it’s their grief. The griever may overreact to something benign you said because they are likely experiencing the worst time in their lives. They may not know how they want to be supported or may even struggle with asking for help. It is even possible that whatever you said was very kind and helpful, but you caught them on a bad day. Give them space, check back in if it seems appropriate, and be gentle with them should they reach back out to you.
Remember, there is no one perfect way to support a grieving friend, but a close friend will appreciate your effort and presence much more than silence.
I hope these tips help you help a grieving friend.