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Tips on How to Support a Grieving Family

Your best friend or family member is in pain and you aren’t sure what to say.  Use this guide to help you with some examples of things to say in this difficult time.  It is important to understand there is nothing you can say at this moment to take away the pain they are experiencing.  In this situation, your role is not to comfort, it is to provide support.  What that support is will be different for every family because each family will have different needs.  But in moments of crisis and shock, helping with meeting a family’s basic, practical needs can be the biggest help.  Take your cues from the family and keep in mind some of the following things that are often helpful to families:

1)  Acknowledge that you can’t imagine how they are feeling.  People don’t want you to pretend you understand (because you don’t, even if you’ve had a similar loss) and they will appreciate your honesty about how unique and devastating their loss is.

2)  Ask about their loved one. If you have spent some time with them, and it feels appropriate, ask them to tell you a little about their loved one or show you photos, if they have any.

3)  Ask them what they need.  Now, don’t be surprised if many people can’t tell you, because they don’t know what they need.  But sometimes they will, so make sure to ask.  It may be helpful to give them options when you frame the question.  “What can I do to support you guys right now?  I can call other family for you, contact a funeral home [insert other practical needs here!] or I can just give you some time”.

4)  Help them connect with those who will best support them.  Ask if they need help calling anyone and discuss who will be their support in the days, weeks, and months to come.

5)  Acknowledge that you don’t know what to say.  If you are struggling with your words, just be honest.  Families will understand, because in that moment they know there is nothing anyone could possibly say to fix the situation.

6)  Give them space if they need it.  Many families will want time with each other and with the person who just died.  Take your cues from the family and give them space if they need it.

7)  Don’t judge.  This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how some may impose their grief style or assumptions on families.  Some families may weep, some may laugh and joke, and some may show no emotion at all.  Whatever it is, give them the time, space, and understanding they need to grieve in the way that works for them.

As much as you want to say the right thing, you most certainly don’t want to say the wrong thing.  We don’t want to make the griever sad, we really don’t want to make them angry, and we do so desperately want to make things better.  But alas, we aren’t all walking Hallmark cards, and we don’t always know the exact right words to say. Pressure is off, though, because grief isn’t something you can fix simply by turning an eloquent phrase.  In the beginning, you can’t make it even a little bit better.  Here are some suggestions of things NOT to say to a loved one who is grieving.

1)  I know how you feel.

  1. A griever thinks: No, you don’t.

2)  He/she is in a better place now.

  1. A griever thinks: Who cares!? I want him/her to be here.

3)  It will get easier.

  1. A griever thinks: That seems impossible, or I don’t want to forget the person I love.

4)  At least you have other children. (or) You can always have more children.

  1. A griever thinks:  I don’t want another child, I know I still have my other children, but I lost THIS child.

5)  You can always remarry.

  1. A griever thinks: I just lost the person I planned to spend the rest of my life with.  I am still in love.  I’m not interested in anyone else.

6)  At least she/he lived a long life.

  1. A griever thinks: Is that supposed to make me miss him/her less?

7)  It was God’s will”, “God has a plan”, or “Everything happens for a reason”

  1. A griever thinks:  Why is this God’s plan? Why would God make us suffer? I don’t care if it’s God’s plan, it sucks.

8)  God never gives us more than we can handle.

  1. A griever thinks: Oh yeah? How do you know? Oh yeah? Easy for you to say.  Oh yeah?  My [son couldn’t handle his addiction] [daughter couldn’t handle her depression][husband couldn’t handle his cancer].

9)  “Don’t cry” or “You need to be strong now”

  1.  A griever thinks: I can’t stop.  I want to cry.  I need to cry.  I can’t be strong.  You think I am a bad mother/father/son/daughter.

10)  It could be worse.  I know this person who . . .

  1. A griever thinks: I don’t care! I am in the worst pain imaginable, why are you talking to me about someone else?

For more discussion go to https://whatsyourgrief.com/grief-support-vs-comfort/

Credit to: What’s Your Grief Online Resources at https://whatsyourgrief.com/supporting-grieving-families-tips-rns-nurses/

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