Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What You Can Say and Do

In response to last Tuesday’s post, a number of people have asked about what we can say and do that is helpful to those who are grieving. This is for Stan, Peggy, Michael, and Diane.


What we do for those who are grieving is a matter of compassion, of kindness that comes from concern for the wellbeing of the other person. Whatever you say or do, do it with compassion, with kindness that goes beyond politeness. Let your heart respond to the person who is grieving.

Be honest. Your inclination is to want to find the right words that will take the pain away. You won’t. The pain is going to be there no matter what you say. This frees you up to be honest with the person who is grieving. You can say things like, “Look, I don’t know what to say, but I care about you.” or “Grief really makes me uneasy, but I want to help. Could I bring over a meal?”
You can say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” This bridges the gap between us. It acknowledges my grief and it tells me that you care.
If you have also lost a spouse, parent, or child, mention this because it tells me that you understand the general terrain of grief, and it gives me an opening to say something back. But even if you have had a similar loss, you still don’t know where I am in grief’s huge terrain until you listen to me.

If you are willing to listen, ask me how I’m doing. Expect honesty. I don’t have the patience for chit-chat these days. I don’t expect you to have answers. Just having someone listen helps me understand what I’m going through because as I talk, I discover what I am thinking and feeling.

A hug, or a hand on the arm, can say more than words. I need to know that I’m still physically part of the community. This is a matter of survival for me because I know friends who haven’t survived grief. While I don’t need to share my grief with everyone, I do need to share with a number of people.

Expect emotions. In the beginning of grief, my emotions are on overdrive and I’m not in control. I hear a song, and I cry. I see something, and it really could be anything, and I cry. You say something caring, and I cry. Don’t worry about it. Just let me cry. Put an arm around me if you want. Eventually I’ll stop and then we can go on sharing.

Talk to me about my loved one. It will probably hurt in the beginning, but I love to hear about her. I love to hear stories that I never knew. I want to know that she was important to you, that you grieve her, too, and won’t forget her.

Don’t hide from me. Be physically present. Do not pretend that you don’t see me across the street. If you can’t deal with grief today because of something that you are going through, just wave. Acknowledge me.

Don’t try to fix what has broken, just support me. You can’t fix this. The only thing I want is for my loved one to come back from the dead, and I know this isn’t going to happen, even if I say that I hope it does.

Grief is exhausting. Not only do I have to mourn the one who died, I have to dismantle my old life, which is hard. I also have to construct a new life without the person best able to help me do this. And right now I don’t have the energy to make this happen, or the dreams to guide me and give me hope.

Grief is heart-wrenching, especially in the first year when I will go through all the anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays for the first time. If you celebrated them with me in the past, please continue to do so this year.

If I’m not eating, bring food. Offer to go grocery shopping. Offer to do chores around the house, like mowing the lawn. If I’m a bit ADHD, you can’t imagine how seeing something neat and tidy will give me a boost of energy. If I’m not leaving the house, invite me out for coffee or dinner. Even if I turn you down the first ten times, keep offering until I accept. One day I will be ready, but right now what I need to know is that I am still part of our community of friends. If you ignore me, I will turn inward and start adopting a lot of cats, or parakeets. Maybe both.

Invite me to parties, but allow me to sit on the side if I want. Being out of the house is good for me. Seeing the world functioning normally is good for me. I need to see normal. I need to be reminded that people can still be happy. Although my personal world has blown up, I need to know that the larger world is still here, and that the places I loved to go will be there when I’m ready.

Let me know that you continue to think about me. You don’t need to do much. Sending a note saying you were thinking about me today does so much to reroute my ship that was headed into despair. Continue to send cards and call in the months to come. But if we’re good friends, then only sending cards is not enough. It’s not a substitute for coming over for coffee.

Besides being a good friend, you can learn from me. As you listen to me talk about grief, you will learn how grief moves and how it feels.

I will always love the one who died, so I will always grieve that she is gone. But I will learn how to live with this, with your help.
Grief is going to be part of everyone’s life. If you’re in a long-term relationship, it’s a given that one of you will die and the other one will grieve. Our parents will die. Our pets will die. Good and loving friends will die for reasons that we don’t understand. And, far too often, some of our children will die, from accidents, suicides, or illnesses. Death happens more often than we want to know.

What gets us through our tragedies, what gives us hope during the long, empty hours when despair is knocking on the door, is the presence and compassion of others.

Grief is a life experience.


  1. Terrific and thank you Mark. I'm sure many can and will benefit from this. Any practice of being with grief, even second- or third-hand, takes not only compassion but courage as well. Those are good muscles to find and gently tune.

  2. Courage. Yes! Definitely, Ricky. I like your word. Also the part about needing to get these muscles in shape for when grief hits us closer to home.