You may know someone affected by the Humboldt Broncos’ tragedy. Or perhaps you know someone who recently lost a loved one through separate circumstances. And maybe you don’t. But it’s worth recognizing that there will come a time in your life when someone you care about is managing through a personal loss. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable.
People often find it difficult to offer support someone mourning the loss of a parent, child, spouse or friend. “What should I say?”. “What should I do?”
The reality is, many of those grieving the loss of someone dear, feel deeply isolated — because their friends, colleagues and neighbours are often afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, and therefore end up avoiding the topic or THEM altogether. There is no “RIGHT” way to help, just as there is no RIGHT way to grieve — but there are a few great ways you can support someone you care about as they move through the grieving process.
Here are some practical suggestions for helping them through a time of loss:
Share Stories About the Person They Lost
Don’t steer conversations away if your friend’s loved one comes up. They want to hear great, fun, delightful stories about the person who passed away — it helps keep fond memories alive and brings back thoughts of happier times. Keep in mind, by mentioning the person they lost, you’re not going to be reminding them of the death. They haven’t forgotten.
There will be times when your friend wants or needs to be left alone. But don't assume that's the case every day. Ask them to the movies, for a walk in the park, a coffee, or a games night at your place.
Invite Them Out
There will be times when your friend wants or needs to be left alone. But don’t assume that’s the case every day. Ask them to the movies, for a walk in the park, a coffee, or a games night at your place. And keep asking, even if they decline the first ten times. It’s important that they feel included, self-confident and loved during this time.
Don’t Avoid Them
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, lost her husband suddenly while in Mexico for a weekend away. In a now famous Facebook post, where she discusses her feelings of sorrow and isolation, she recalls that before his death, she used to chat, wave and smile at other parents while she dropped her kids off at school. But after the tragedy, those same parents averted their eyes and didn’t engage her in conversation — almost certainly because they were afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Such daily interactions — or lack thereof — contributed to Sandberg’s acute feeling of isolation in the days and months after her husband’s passing.
Shift the Way You Ask Questions
Many people ask: “Is there anything I can do?” While certainly well-meaning, such a question shifts the burden of responsibility to the person grieving. Instead, consider offering specific help for everyday tasks that might feel overwhelming to the griever right now — such as watering plants, taking out the garbage or picking up groceries. Rather than “Is there anything I can do,” ask “I am going to the grocery store — can I pick you up some bread? Do you need something else?”
Another question to adjust is “How are you?” Says Sandberg in her Facebook post:
Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, “My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?”. When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
Consider offering specific help for everyday tasks that might feel overwhelming to the griever right now — such as watering plants, taking out the garbage or picking up groceries.
Don’t Minimize the Loss
Avoid telling them that “everything will be OK” or giving other optimistic statements. Anything that starts with “at least…” or “you can always…” is not what your friend needs to hear right now. Nor are generalized platitudes such as “he’s in a better place now.” This loss is real, it hurts, and there is no silver lining. You will be more useful to them if you are honest and say “I know this really sucks right now.” As Sandberg says, “real empathy is sometimes not insisting it will be okay, but acknowledging that it is not.”
While your help and support will be needed during the funeral and any other official ceremonies, this is almost the easier part of letting go of a loved one. There is a time, a place, and a relative script to follow — and mourners, for the most part, know what to do and what is expected of them at this stage. But once the first week or so passes, supporters tend to drift away, back into their every day routines, and the one dealing with grief most acutely can feel very alone. So check in regularly, consistently ask them out and/ or offer specific help, and let them know you’re there for them, no matter what. Even consider setting up a schedule with friends to ensure your grieving friend is supported regularly.
Supporting a friend during a devastating, personal loss is not going to be easy. There will be times when they don’t want to see you, when conversations will be incredibly difficult, and emotions will be intense. The best thing you can do is to stick with the person you’re supporting, be honest and genuine, and demonstrate unconditional love and support.
There will be light in their lives again. It’s not your job to find that light — only they can do that. But you can be there to hold their hand through the darkness.
This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.