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First, a few simple tips…
…for making it an open and supportive conversation once they’re ready to talk:
- Make space – ensure you have plenty of time for your friend
- It’s not about you – position them and their experience as the focal point
- Keep it simple – it’s ok for conversations to be brief
- Be honest – it’s better to be truthful if you don’t know what to say or how to cope
- Be present – keep bringing yourself back to what they’re saying
Second, choose your support style
- Emotional support is often needed in the critical days and weeks right after the loss. It combines verbal and non-verbal communication. You might verbally express your understanding while listening empathically, and reassuring them with a hug and a squeeze of their hand. As this is an acute phase of grief you may be required to take on distressing details.
- Supportive conversations go a little bit deeper than emotional support. Here the person experiencing grief might open up about their pain and share stories about the person or thing they have lost. These discussions help to clarify the loss and attach meaning to it. It’s important to practice good timing with these discussions. Sometimes the grieving person will express a need to talk about their experience or ask for advice. However, it is likely they won’t be ready until a little further on in their grief journey.
- Information specific to the type of loss and the grief experience is often welcome. The grieving person may want to ensure their reactions and that of their family is normal and know what to expect. This includes making calls to services and professionals, accessing websites including mental health and grief services, and providing brochures, books, podcasts, etc.
- Practical Assistance is understood to be ‘crucial in the early days. So if you find conversation with the person is difficult, pivot to caring actions instead. But avoid asking, “can I do anything?” which transfers the decision-making burden to the grieving person. Instead, be specific. Suggest something that addresses their needs and engages your strengths. Consider dropping over a home-cooked meal or setting up a meal train, grocery shopping, repairs around the house, assisting with the eulogy or memorial.
Third, some conversation guidelines
Practice active listening.
People who are experiencing grief say friends and family resort to talking too much. Employ active listening skills instead, including attentive body language, asking subtle questions, and repeating back parts of what they’ve said in your own words.
Let them lead the conversation.
Try not to question their experience, forget any preconceived notions you may have about the right or wrong way to grieve, and hold back on offering advice. Listen for the message underlying their words.
Be ready for highly emotional responses.
Such as anger, distress, confusion, guilt, and blame. And practice patience. In the early days, it is common for those who are grieving to retell the story repeatedly and focus on clinical aspects to avoid emotions.
Keep it open-ended.
Grief has no set duration – it can last anywhere from a few weeks to a lifetime. Nor does it have a set trajectory. Your friend will experience countless different emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. So keep tabs on them and let them know you’re there when they need you. As time goes by, you can usually focus less on grief and more on life after loss.
Fourth, find the right words
A suggested conversation starter
“I know what’s happened and I want to support you in any way I can. But I’m a little unsure as to what support you need so please tell me what will work best for you. Is it better for me to call or text or drop-in? Do you want me to get in touch daily, every couple of days, or weekly?
Don’t resort to platitudes…
…to express your sympathy. These well-worn statements, “They’re in a better place now,” “Everything will be okay,” “It all happened for the best,” can appear generic.
Try words that offer genuine support:
“I know what you’re going through” is dismissive of a person’s unique grief experience.
Instead, say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now, but I am here for you.”
“I’m sorry for your loss” can sound superficial and put distance between you and the bereaved.
Instead, say ”My heart goes out to you.”
“Time heals all wounds” diminishes the person’s loss.
Instead, say “Nothing will ever be the same”
Courageous conversations are a win-win-win
Not only do we show our support to someone we care about, but we also empower ourselves by helping others, and we help to break down the stigma around grief discussions in our society.
And considering we all experience grief and loss at some point in our lives, this makes having courageous conversations a win for us all.
Our reference text:
Dyregrov, K., & Dyregrov, A. (2008). Effective grief and bereavement support the role of family, friends, colleagues, schools and support professionals . Jessica Kingsley Publishers.