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August 1, 2020

Lip Service

Lip Service is a writing advice column. A communication helpline. Any time you’re at a loss for words, you can ask us anonymously for our best ideas on what to say, type, or share. Lip Service is free, so you can take it or leave it. It’s as simple as that.

How to Comfort a Grieving Friend

Question

A close friend is grieving the loss of a parent, which I’ve never experienced. I want to reach out and show my support, but every time I go to say something, I panic and do nothing. What should I say?

Answer

Grief is a heavy thing. It can make people sad, angry, and exhausted. It can look alien to us from the outside, but in reality, grief is inherent to our beings. It’s the body’s normal response to an extraordinary event. It’s our healing process.

So if grief comes naturally to us all, why is it so hard to talk to someone struggling with it? I don’t have a great answer for that. In the same way that we can love someone without fully understanding them, grief is deeply personal. It will vary from town to town and friend to friend. Therefore, there’s no cure-all sentence for providing comfort. In fact, the entire process is guaranteed to be uncomfortable.

That’s why when you meet grief, you must match it on its level–go personal. Admit you’re only human and may make mistakes but can act with good intentions. Reach out with whatever comes naturally to you. You can even start with what you wrote here. “I’m so sorry you’re suffering. As your friend, I wish I could make this go away. I know I can’t, but I’m here and I support you.”

That’s the only way to slay the grief monster. Acknowledge the beast, and then attack it with personal support. Too often our brain tricks us into thinking we’re just four to six words away from making grief disappear, but that’s a trap. Instead, meet your friend on the battlefield. Make it clear you’re there for the long haul. Continue to show up. They’ll tell you what to do next.

Right now, you’re not showing up, so despite your good intentions you might be increasing your friend’s suffering. It’s time to plainly name the thing so you can get back to the business of being a friend.

You don’t have to speak it out loud. Write it down in a note and hand it to your friend. Let them read it and absorb your message. Let them respond in the way they need to continue the healing process. Let go of the pressure to do the “right” thing, and don’t expect a “right” response. Instead, ask them what’s next. Together, you’ll carry on with living.

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