How to Respond to Someone Else's Grief
It’s been almost 4 years, and I still remember getting the call that my friend was gone.
There was so much shock, and so, so much confusion. I was supposed to be going to work, but instead, I sat on a bench with a friend. We sat in silence, watching cars go by. She had no idea how to handle me in my mess. I can remember distinctly that she didn’t give me advice, or tell me how to process. Her presence to sit with me in this dark, unforeseen place was all I needed. Why doesn’t this response feel like the norm?
I have thought and thought and thought about this topic for so long, ever since death entered my own life. It feels scary to write, because grief is HARD. And messy. There's no formula for maneuvering those feelings and questions, where you’re wondering if it honestly will all ever be normal again.
But this post isn't about my own grief. It's not about the tears I've cried, or the questions I've asked. It’s not about my own days where getting out of bed felt too hard.
It's about a different side of the fight. It's about your mom's grief when she loses her college roommate. And your best friend after she has a miscarriage. It’s about all the people you encounter, telling you about their grief.
Before I go in, I want to be clear: I am not a grief counselor. I'm no expert. Yes, I have experienced grief. Yes, I did write my senior paper on the difference in the grieving process between traditional loss (death) and non-traditional loss (break-ups, loss of identity, divorce, pet loss, etc.). I don't have all the answers. This is my own experience. It’s what I’ve heard my friends say when they talk about their parent’s cancer. It’s what I’ve noticed as I try and maneuver grief and pain.
I've been asking myself this question lately, "How would you have wanted them to respond?" Them being friends, family, peers, coworkers, etc. It’s a big ask.
And here's what I want you to hear from me: you know your people better than I do. So first and foremost, pull on that. You may know without a shadow of a doubt that the person in your life who is grieving doesn't need or want you to respond in the ways I might suggest. I'M SO GLAD YOU KNOW THEM. THROW THIS OUT THE WINDOW AND SHOW UP HOW THEY NEED. Okay.
Have you ever shied away from being honest that you lost someone close to you, for fear of making someone else uncomfortable? Like, you literally just don't even tell them it happened because you don't want to make it awkward? I have.
I remember a few months ago at work, in prepping for a big meeting, being asked the question, “How are you, Jaime?” For a split second, I thought about being honest. I thought about saying, “A friend from high school overdosed this week. I’m kind of messed up about it.”
But I didn’t. fact, I didn’t tell most people. Because I don't want someone to feel like they need to fix it. That wasn't my goal in opening up. I just wanted to be honest about where I was at in life. But I can tell you're feeling uncomfortable, I reason, so I'll buck up and deal with it later, on my own.
But I don’t think that’s the way it needs to be. I think we can do better. I really believe if we were more comfortable with silence and pauses, we would feel the permission to share more freely. I have a masters in counseling, and I’ve learned that if you linger and don't speak for a few seconds longer, people will usually dig a little deeper and say more. There's gold, there. We just need to be patient enough for it to reveal itself.
So here are a few practical tips if someone you know tells you they're walking through a loss.
1. Empathize with them.
Acknowledge their pain. Don't jump to fixing it. You can't.
2. Ask: "Do you want to talk about it?"
We don't need to overcomplicate it. Give them the space to share a story. Or not. Whatever they decide. But this way, at least you've told (and shown) that you're okay sitting in this place with them.
3. Ask: "How can I be here for you?"
Again, ask straight up. So often we sit here wondering if we could be doing more, when literally asking can bring a lot of clarity. Granted, there is a significant amount of time that they won't know the answer to this question. That's okay. Reiterate that they can let you know if and when they do figure it out.
4. Check in.
You don't have to ask every hour. Lean in and listen to your gut. This not only gives them another opportunity to open up, but it also reiterates that you are available.
There is no perfect way to handle grief. It really does look different for every person, but I think these basic skills can help.
If you're feeling like you don't know what to do, let me tell you what you shouldn't do: don't respond with a cliche. Rarely does it help in the middle of someone's deep pain to respond by saying, "Everything happens for a reason" or, "Something good will come out of this." We all, for the most part, understand these things to be true, and I think stating them in the really sensitive times goes without saying.
Grief rips people from everything that feels normal. Feelings of deep sadness and confusion are inevitable. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I felt guilt for moments when I laughed or smiled in thinking about who I had just lost. Those moments where shame creeps in are weird. Give yourself, and your people, some room to maneuver a completely new normal.
They need you. Even if they don't know how to say it.
Windrose Magazine is your guide to navigating life in your twenties through a collection of essays, interviews, and advice that will inspire you to chart your own life course, free of comparison.
PLEASE NOTE: We can only ship within the United States. We still love our international friends, promise!
Magazine ships within 7-10 business days of order. All sales final.
P.S. How about a free digital copy of Windrose Magazine issue 1?