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What’s the Best Way to Help Someone Who’s Grieving?

I am certainly no expert when it comes to giving advice about grief, but I have learned a few things along the way. I’ve started compiling lists of lessons I’ve learned from loss. You can find list one here and list two here. Undoubtedly, more lists will be coming… If I were asked to suggest one piece of advice to help someone who is grieving, I’d be hard pressed to come up with just one thing, but I’d probably have to go with this:

When someone’s loved one has died, one simple thing you can always do which offers so much comfort is allowing the grieving person to talk about their loved one, if they so choose of course.

I don’t know exactly why it is, but many people have the mistaken notion that if we don’t talk about something or someone, maybe we won’t think about it/them quite so much. This is so not true.

Years ago a dear friend of mine gave birth to a full-term, stillborn baby girl. My friend knew her baby was stillborn before the delivery. My friend and her husband named their baby Jenny. They held Jenny. They wept for Jenny. They kept a bit of Jenny’s hair. They had tiny footprints made. They saved whatever precious treasures they could and tucked them away to take out from time to time during all the years ahead in which Jenny would not be physically present. They held a memorial service for Jenny. They grieved deeply then, perhaps they still do.

That was a rough time for me as a friend. I felt completely helpless. Of course I called my friend. I visited her. I took meals to her family. I sat with her. I cried with her. I listened to her lament. I did what I could, always knowing it wasn’t enough, not even close.

One of many things I learned from that experience was that my friend wanted to talk about Jenny and so we did, and not just for a few days or for a few weeks. Jenny remained part of our conversations for a very long time; in fact, sometimes we still speak of her.

I remember one day after a period of time had passed since her loss, my friend confided with me how she felt even more sad when others didn’t talk about Jenny. Talking about the loss was excruciatingly painful, but not talking about it was even worse. It was like erasing Jenny.

I found the same to be true when a dear cousin of mine was killed in a tragic truck accident. The pain I saw in my aunt’s eyes during that time sometimes haunts me still. That loss was decades ago, but I know my aunt still likes to talk about her son from time to time. It’s not like she’s forgotten him. Talking about him helps keep his memory alive.

Ever since my mother died from metastatic breast cancer in 2008, I have come to realize that some of my family members like to talk about her lots and others prefer to talk less, or even not at all. No way is right or better. We are all different in how we grieve.

Yes, we are all different in how we grieve, but giving someone the option to talk about their loved one who has died is almost always welcomed.

All you have to do is ask. All you have to do is listen.

What could be simpler and more compassionate than that?

What would your number one piece of advice be to help someone who is grieving?

Have you ever felt you shouldn’t talk about a loved one of yours who has died?

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Beth L. Gainer

Friday 6th of September 2013

Hi Nancy,

This is a terrific post and very insightful. I agree that talking about a loved one who has passed away can be so therapeutic to the grieving person. Unfortunately, I come from a family that doesn't talk about those who have died. There's not a lot of communication. A few years ago, my brother and his wife delivered a stillborn, full-term son. I felt so helpless. I occasionally try to bring it up, but my brother doesn't want to focus on this, so I follow his lead. They have since had a healthy baby boy, but I always know they think of the one who didn't make it.

Nancy

Saturday 14th of September 2013

Beth, My family is much the same. My mom was the real "talker" in the family... I'm sorry about your brother's loss. I know what you mean about feeling helpless... I think it's wise to take his lead on talking about that. I'm sure he is grateful knowing you are always there to listen if he should wish to bring up that painful loss and that means an awful lot. Thanks for sharing, Beth.

Helensamia

Tuesday 20th of August 2013

When my aunt died we painted her coffin with all the beautiful flowers she loved... Her grand children, daughters, son-in-laws and myself had the coffin in the garage and over a few drinks told stories and memories as we painted....It was a wonderful experience of being able to mourn openly and respect her memory...

Nancy

Tuesday 20th of August 2013

Helensamia, That is just a lovely thing your family did. What a memory for you all to treasure. Thanks for sharing about it.

Lindsay

Monday 19th of August 2013

I agree that talking about the person who has passed away is often better than not saying anything at all. I prefer to have others ask about my grandma, and I like to talk about her or hear others talk about her.

There is just that fear of discomfort in our culture. I think we are afraid of saying something that will hurt our grieving family members/friends, so we just don't say anything. Or, I know I am often unsure of how to appropriately bring it up or how to encourage others to do so without making it awkward.

Nancy

Tuesday 20th of August 2013

Lindsay, Our culture is very hesitant to talk about dying, death and grief. It's really too bad because like always, talking and sharing about it helps all in the long run. I like talking about and listening to others talk about grandma too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Weekly Round Up – The Valuing Time Edition | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

Sunday 18th of August 2013

[...] paradox of time particularly strikes me in relation to time spent in grief  and Nancy has a great post on how to help someone through the grieving [...]

Marie Ennis-O'Connor (@JBBC)

Sunday 18th of August 2013

Nancy, when my beautiful mom died 18 months ago, I got a lot of comfort from knowing that you and others understood what I was going through. Just knowing that even one person really gets it can be incredibly powerful.

Nancy

Monday 19th of August 2013

Marie, I'm glad you felt that "embrace". Grief can be a very lonely thing, but it doesn't have to be - not entirely anyway. Thank you for reading and commenting.