By Dr. Liz Hale
All month long we’ve been working on how to be a better friend. We’ve learned when to offer advice (and when not to) and how to be a better listener. But, what advice should you offer a friend going through a devastating loss or crisis….or should you just listen? Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Liz weighs in.
When a friend is struggling with something like divorce or the horrendous loss of a child, or perhaps even a debilitating illness, it’s hard to know what you possibly do or say to offer support and comfort.
Sometimes the only thing we can do is to just show up! That may mean showing up in person at the front door, sending a heartfelt note, or leaving a voicemail or text message. When an individual is suffering, either physically or emotionally, it’s surprising how much effort others often take to avoid them. Excuses are made like, “It’s too painful to see them,” or “I won’t know what to say…I’ll just cross the street now to avoid an awkward moment.” “I don’t want to make them feel bad…, etc.”
What to say and how to help someone who’s grieving, for instance, is a challenge. In talking to my clients about this, they’ve taught me about what isn’t helpful to hear from family and friends. Here are a few of them:
WHAT TO AVOID
“What Can I Do?”
Any question, for that matter, is often beyond the ability to answer when you’re in the middle of a crisis. People devastated by grief struggle with the simplest decisions…often times they are making some monumental decisions like burial arrangements and anything outside of that is impossible to consider.
Common “Comfort” Lines
“He’s in a better place.” “God needed her more than you did.” “Your memories will comfort you.” “Time will heal.” Now, I’ve said many of these lines…but they really make no sense at the time as well-meaning as they are. This dear friend of ours may be trying to figure out something incomprehensible and doesn’t have the space to fit in other ideas.
“You Must Cry.”
Or get angry, or get over it, or whatever. Again, we think we know what’s good for someone else, and worry if they don’t match our perceived notion of what grief or loss recovery should look like. Grief has many faces and differing time-lines; no two people express it the same way. Keep in mind that the famous book, Death and Dying, by Elizabeth Kubler Ross is specific to someone with a cancer diagnosis. In other words, not every one goes through the 5 stages of grief. Someone may never go through denial or anger…and that’s perfectly normal for them. Grieving is as individual as a fingerprint.
Giving “Grief Group” Information.
Again, something I’ve learned from clients. Well-intentioned people will pick up a book written by someone else who has lost a child, for example. And the kind gesture is, “I’ve never lost a child….I can’t even imagine the magnitude of that pain, but here is someone who has! Read this book!” What clients tell me is that they don’t want to be part of a group; a group of grieving parents, or a group of widows who have lost husbands, or group of divorcees….at least not yet. Their grief stands by itself.
I mentioned grief does not necessarily followed stages. First and foremost, keep in mind: Six to 18-months after a loss is usually the most difficult time. Numbness begins to disappear and reality sinks in. Life has been forever changed. We may think that one year post-divorce or death is plenty of time to grieve; the reality is that those who hurt may feel worse.
Again, according to individuals and families with whom I’ve worked, there are things that “help” even though nothing may truly comfort with you’re dealing with some of life’s greatest losses. That’s the key point to be made. A dear friend may not want comfort…what they want is their child back, or husband, or health, etc. However, let’s talk about what is most helpful:
WHAT TO DO:
Show Up Lovingly.
You don’t want to say; that’s all right because words can’t be absorbed anyway. Simply saying, “I don’t know what to say” is the perfect thing to say because it’s true! Avoid trying to pull out their emotions or putting yours onto them. A gentle touch means a lot. One woman who lost a son was sitting on the couch after the funeral service. Family and friends gathered around her and one friend just sat right next to her and played with her hair and interacted with the others so this sweet grieving mother wouldn’t have to. A gentle touch means so much.
Take Care of Details.
Even well-after the loss, remove the need for a friend to have to plan or think about something, such as a date and time to get together for dinner. One suggestion is to say, “I’ll pick you up for dinner at 6:00. Wear jeans, we’ll go some place casual and I’ll have you home by 8:00.” When you pick them up, accept how they are at the time. Perhaps they’ll be quiet, sad, or don’t want to talk much. Even the most gracious may have a difficult time expressing appreciation. They don’t need to….they own us nothing.
Remember and Mention.
Most of us who have lost a loved one welcome hearing their name and a reminder of fond memories. Keep track of anniversary dates on your own calendar – there are dates that your dear friend will NEVER forget and we’ll need a calendar reminder in order to pay extra close attention around those significant dates. Don’t forget about the importance of extending yourself from a distance. Some people like their space at times within the grieving process. Express yourself in a note or e-mail – share specific memories of the lost loved one; send reminders of your love and support without any suggestions or advice; those loving notes will be read again and again, especially during the quite hours in the middle of the night when you can’t be there.
Hallmark is on to this, once, again. They now have a new line of cards, called “Journeys.” Some of the card options are for those going through cancer treatments, divorce, alcohol recovery…..there is something about seeing a card in the mailbox when you’re feeling blue and alone. Sometimes that’s all we need is to know that someone cares and is thinking of us.
Don’t worry about hitting the right mark when it comes to reaching out to a friend who is suffering emotionally or physically. There is no mark to hit when it comes to comforting a friend who’s suffering. Come from the heart. Heartfelt actions speak louder than actual words.
Dr. Liz Hale is a regular contributor on Studio 5 and a local clinical psychologist who specialized in individual, marriage and corporate consulting. If you have questions for Dr. Liz, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (801) 363-2245.