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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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What You Can Say and Do

What we can 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. I don’t want you to feel alone in this.”

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 in grief’s huge terrain I am 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’m thinking and feeling.

A hug or a hand on the arm can do more for me than words. I need to know that I am still physically part of our community.

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 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 will stop and 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 her name spoken. I love to hear stories about her that I never knew. I need to know that she was important to you, too, that you grieve and will not 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, 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 also have to dismantle my old life, which is hard, and I have to construct a new life without the person best able to help me do this, and this is hard. Right now I don’t have the energy to make much of anything happen.

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 offer to do so this year.

If I’m not eating, offer to bring dinner. Offer to go grocery shopping. Offer to do specific chores around the house, like shoveling the snow or vacuuming. 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. Right now I need to know that I am still part of your community of friends. If you ignore me, I will turn inward and start adopting cats. Parakeets. Or both.

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 helps. Continue to send cards and call in the months to come. But if we’re good friends, then sending cards is not enough. It’s not a substitute for coming over for coffee. Cards only serve as place markers for our friendship.

Besides being a good friend, you can learn from me. As you listen to me talk about grief, you will learn about grief’s pace. How it moves. 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.

(For what not to say, see http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com/2015/05/stupid-things-caring-people-say-about.html


  1. such good sincere advice. it is so hard for most people and even though I have been through it, I am still not the best at it either. I have started letting people know when they think I should be farther along this path I got thrown on that no one can decide how much time it takes from one step to another. Everyone is going to experience it differently. It has now been almost 34 months, the only person that is talking to me that seems to get it is my sister who knew us all our married lives. thanks Mark for putting this in words as a guideline. Take care.

    1. You're welcome, Melody. Helping those who are grieving shouldn't seem so scary.

  2. "But if we’re good friends, then sending cards is not enough. It’s not a substitute for coming over for coffee." This is such a true statement! I get only texts and emails and what I long for is to hear a human voice talking to me and to be physically present in the same room and maybe even a touch from a hand!

  3. You are so right, Joan. Sometimes, when words fail, we simply need the physical presence of someone else.