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Helping a Loved One with Grief and Loss

A family death. A home destroyed. A career cut short. These are just a few examples of events that can cause devastation and despair. Loss is part of all our lives, but what do you say to someone who has experienced a recent loss? We often wish we had a magic wand to erase the pain of our family members and friends. And the uncertainty of not knowing what to do or say can produce anxiety and lead to the option of doing nothing at all.

While there is no one formula for personal loss recovery—no neat plan to help one overcome great sadness—there are a number of ways to help someone regain hope and a future with some light when we thought there was only darkness. Here are five suggestions to be a helpful and caring support for someone who is currently experiencing or has previously been through a difficult loss.

Realize loss is personal
There are many events throughout life that can create intense emotions of sadness or sorrow. It is important to recognize the loss, but also vital to realize loss can be just as personal as it can be painful. Everyone has a unique set of values, dreams, desires, goals and definitions of what is important. Perspective in loss comes only from the person experiencing it. All other opinions are just that—opinions and ideas of what that loss may mean. Thus it is important not to jump to any conclusions upon hearing about a loss experienced by a friend, co-worker, family member or anyone else. What we may assume is devastation may not be so for another. Or, what we feel is normal or “meant to be” could be distressing and debilitating for another.

Be sensitive in your speech
Many comments that come from genuinely caring people can in fact be most harmful. We want to say something to bring hope or healing to someone in pain, but instead often make comments that attempt to soothe our own pain or discomfort. The words we choose can have pinpoint power to produce insult or emotional injury to those we care about. Here are some examples of common remarks that can be perceived as insensitive, unkind and inappropriate:
“Try not to be sad.” “I know how you feel.” “You will get over it.” “That’s no so bad; let me tell you what happened to me.” “It could have been worse.” “No one ever said life was fair.” “At least he/she lived a long life.” “It was his/her time to go.”

Share care over solutions
We can offer care and compassion without the pressure of providing solutions. It may be difficult but it is important to become comfortable with negative emotions shared by the person experiencing the loss. Sometimes just being present with the grieving person and saying nothing can be most helpful. Sometimes a gentle touch, a hug or allowing the person to cry is worth millions, where no words can match. We can still show our love and support while withholding judgment and advice. Here are some comments that can show compassion and care:
“You are important to me.” “I wish I had the right words, please know I care.” “I am always just a phone call away.” “I am so sorry for your loss.” “I am thinking about you.”

Help honor memories
When someone loses someone or something they love, that doesn’t mean the memories are lost as well. If your friend has experienced a family death, talk about that loved one. Speak their name. Recall and share all that you appreciated about that person. Write a handwritten letter outlining all that you enjoyed, respected or learned from them. Talk about what you will miss most. Don’t be afraid that bringing up their loved one will add to their grief. Their grief is already fully present regardless. Avoiding the subject only minimizes their loss. Loved ones often fear that death may bring an end to their very alive memories. It is important to help honor the memories that loss holds.

Create new traditions
Many things can change from year to year. If the circumstances surrounding a loss have left your friend or family member without a special relationship, a home or even a job, then holiday season can be a very difficult time. But you can help turn their attention to creating new memories and traditions. In the case of a family death, consider spending a day celebrating the life of your loved one and what brought joy to them. Spend an afternoon bowling instead of fighting the mall crowds. Or, watch old movies that inspire or bring humor. Begin thinking of ways a new year can offer possibility instead of pain. Celebrate the good times, honor the past and be intentional in creating new direction despite the loss and grief you or your loved ones have survived.