DEAR DOCTOR K:
A close friend suddenly and unexpectedly lost her spouse. How can I help her through her grief?
It’s not easy to console a grieving friend; you can’t fix the situation. Instead, just be present and offer hope toward the future. Accept that your friend’s grieving is a natural process that will gradually ebb. Here are a few specific, practical pieces of advice:
- Name names. Don’t be afraid to mention the deceased.
- Offer hope. People who have grieved often remember that the person who reassured them that things would get better was the one who helped them transition from pain to a renewed sense of life.
- Make phone calls. Call to express your sympathy. Steer clear of such phrases as “It’s God’s will” or “It’s for the best.”
- Write a note. If you had a relationship with the deceased, try to include a warm, caring or funny anecdote.
- Keep in touch. Your friend may need you more after the first few weeks, when other people may stop calling.
- Help out. Be specific when offering help. Volunteer to shop or do laundry, bring dinner or pass on information about funeral arrangements. Sometimes your help is most valuable later. For example, offer to help go through papers or belongings whenever your friend is ready to do so.
- Make a date. Ask your friend to join you for a walk or meal once a week. Don’t take it personally if your friend rebuffs offers or doesn’t return every phone call. Keep trying.
- Listen well instead of advising. People often work through grief and trauma by telling their story over and over. Unless you are asked for your advice, don’t be quick to offer it.
- Avoid judgments. Your friend’s life and emotional landscape have changed enormously, possibly forever. You may wish he or she would move on, but you can’t speed the process or even ensure that it happens. Let your friend heal at the pace that feels right.
A patient of mine lost her husband when they both were in their early 50s. She had been a stay-at-home mom with several hobbies but no profession. Their kids were in college and unlikely to need much more financial help. (This was decades ago, when college tuition fees were more manageable.) Friends and family asked her if there was something they could do to help, but she couldn’t think of anything. So they had nothing to do.
One friend, though, didn’t ask, “Is there something I can do?” Instead, she thought about the woman’s hobbies. The woman loved looking at homes for sale, even though she had no interest in buying. The friend said: “You ought to become a real estate agent, and I’ve done some homework. This is the training and credentials you’ll need.” It worked. The woman spent the next 20 years as one of the most successful agents in her community.