It is an unfortunate fact of life; people we know and often love will pass away, sometimes unexpectedly. When comforting a friend, colleague or family member over their recent loss, it’s not unusual to hesitate a bit as you seek out a way to adequately express your condolences.
I’ve put together a few starting points to keep in mind before the conversation.
Acknowledge their loss. “I’m so sorry to hear that Steven died.” According to the American Cancer Society, using the word “died” expresses that you are open to discussing the person’s feelings. We often tap dance around what to say, and how to appropriately communicate our sympathy. While it’s not necessary to be specific regarding the cause of death (“died from cancer”), you want to let the other person know you are willing to talk.
Own the awkward communication. Saying something like, “I don’t know what to say, except to let you know how sorry I am for your loss. Steven was a wonderful man and a role model to his students.” There is no rule for a heartfelt message and the grieving friend or family member will appreciate your support.
Pay attention to what they aren’t saying. You will have to use your best judgment to determine if the grieving friend/family member wants to talk. Their facial expressions and body language will tell you as much as their words. They may not be up to a long conversation, but could use a warm hug, or someone to sit with them for a while. They may want to talk about their loved one, or it might be too painful to recount certain memories. Everyone grieves differently.
Don’t rush the process. Some people may need a diversion and appreciate drop in guests, while others may wish for a quiet moment to themselves. Some people go back to work right away while others need more time. What they need from you today may be different than a few weeks from now. You may want desperately to cheer them up, but healing takes time and has highs and lows.
Don’t take the silence or distance personally. If you don’t hear back from your friend, understand they are coming to terms with a new normal. They may feel overwhelmed with food, calls and inquiries. Getting back into a normal routine can be quite an adjustment. Offer to help with errands, yard work, driving to doctors’ visits, or whatever they may need. Don’t wait for them to reach out – check in by text, voicemail or in person. Let them know you are a call or text away when they need you. Be proactive without coming across as pushy or overbearing.
Exercise sensitivity during the holidays and special dates. Life tends to march on and it will seem as if your friend is doing better, but grieving a loved one takes time. Certain seasons, and days of the year can be extremely heavy to bear alone. Invite them over for dinner, or ask them to join you on a weekend excursion. Don’t worry that they will see you with your family and feel worse. Being around people and seeing others enjoying life is uplifting and motivating. It will give them hope that new experiences await, in spite of their loss.
Take note of their personal care. If you notice that your friend or family member is neglecting their health, diet, or hygiene, it may be a sign to get others involved. If it’s a friend, contact a parent, if it’s a family member, call a few relatives and set up a schedule for more frequent attention. Medical care and grief counseling may be in order. It is never a sign of weakness to reach out for help.
Most importantly, don’t let your personal discomfort get the best of you. Any simple act of kindness will be appreciated during this difficult chapter, and you’ll be glad you made the effort. People remember those who come through for them during difficult times in their lives. Check in weekly to see what you can do for your friend or family member.
For more of my advice on how to handle grief, read my blog, Funeral Etiquette Questions and Answers.