Lost Loved One: How to Help a Grieving Friend

Dear Ms. Demeanor:

Being the emotional person that I am, I never know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. And just recently I was with someone who had lost his wife after a long period of illness and suffering. This man is feeling so helpless and abandoned, it truly made my heart ache. I felt so helpless and unsure of the right, proper and comforting way to help him.

Debbie B.

Question:

Dear Debbie B.:

My mother's fairly recent death and all the sometimes agonizing, sometimes uplifting events in the days that followed have crystallized and altered my ideas of bereavement. I have learned that there are many "right" things to do. But there is only one grievous and commonplace "wrong" thing to do, and that is nothing.

Not knowing what to say is no excuse for remaining silent. It really doesn't matter what you say. I can't remember a single thing that anybody said to me after my mother's death. What I do remember is that whoever spoke to me made the effort to reach out to me in some way.

Good manners are about kindness. To be kind to the bereaved: Respond to their sorrow. You're dealing with a person who is damaged, who feels the way someone might feel after a car crash. They might not be physically injured, but they are dazed, disconnected, bruised in places doctors cannot touch.

A message of bereavement in any form is welcome. I had once believed that condolences sent by email were inappropriate. But I got an email message that touched me enormously, in part because the response to my sadness was so immediate and thus consoling.

Say something personal and positive in your message. I welcomed the letters that referred specifically to my mom and her achievements. And remember that the condolence is meant for the person who gets it, not the one sending it. The point of a condolence letter is to comfort others, not have them feel sorry for you. Finally, tolerate some weird behavior in the bereaved.

Your overall guideline at such times should simply be to reach out to the other person and express your sympathy and support. In matters of life and death, we are all childlike, vulnerable and grateful for any gesture, however faltering.

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