Three Practical Ways to Help A Friend Who Is Grieving
Everyone grieves differently, so it can be hard to know how to best support each other through grief. In today's Ask the Expert, Marriage and Family Therapist Willa Williams outlines three practical ways to be there for a friend who is grieving.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my dog! A sweet golden retriever, he was my constant companion when I was at home, following me from room to room and lying at my feet when I sat. And when I was out, he waited for my return, ready to greet me at the door with an abundance of wags and kisses. He was with me when my children went to elementary school and when I was home alone. He was with me when my children graduated from high school and left home for college. I was so thankful to have him with me during those tough transitions. I also was grateful that I could keep him with me and not have to release him into adulthood, too. I could keep him with me always.
Or so I had hoped. I am so sad to say that a couple of weeks ago, I had to say goodbye to my beloved fur baby, and I am grieving. I am grieving a faithful companion who had been with me every day for almost 14 years. It most definitely is a loss, and I am experiencing it as such.
I know that I am not the only one who is experiencing a loss during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people are experiencing losses, and clearly some losses are much greater than mine. People are grieving: losing out on their senior year and accompanying activities and celebrations; having no time to say goodbye to friends before they moved back home from school; having no prom; having no graduation; losing an important summer internship; having to postpone a wedding that they had been planning for months; losing income; losing an apartment; losing a job; and worst of all, losing a loved one to the virus.
So many people are coping with significant losses. We really need each other to get through these tough times and to process the grief. However, sometimes we don’t know the best way to be there for someone who is grieving. How do we do that well? To help, I’d like to offer three practical gestures we can do to come alongside someone who is grieving.
1. Ask. Ask the person how they are doing. The loss can be like the elephant in the room, and so addressing it can actually be relieving for the person. It is likely that the loss is at the forefront of their mind, occupying their thoughts. To be able to talk about it will assist the person with the grieving process and help them feel better. Perhaps they might want to bring it up, but they fear making others feel uncomfortable or fear being a burden. When we ask, we let them know that it is safe to talk about their loss. If the person doesn’t want to bring it up or talk about it, we can give them a way out by saying something like, “If you would like to talk about your loss, I would love to listen; but if you would prefer not to, I totally understand and will just be here for whatever you need.” By doing this we make it safe even if the person doesn’t want to talk about their loss. We are still available and supportive, and they know that we care.
The loss can be like the elephant in the room, and so addressing it can actually be relieving for the person.
A few days after I lost my dog, I ran into my neighbor while out for a run. She asked me where my dog was, as she usually sees him with me. I started to cry and tearfully told her what happened. She was mortified and apologized multiple times that she asked, even though there was no way she could have known. I assured her that it was okay she asked, and that it was good for me to talk about it. I let her know that I actually felt relieved to be able to share it with her. I was glad that she asked.
2. Listen. Intentionally listen when the person shares about their loss and their grief. People need to talk about their loss to be able to work through it, feel it, and begin to heal. Listening well aids the person in that difficult process. When we listen, we are giving the person the gifts of time, attention, and support. Our listening helps them experience care and compassion. It helps them know that they are not alone in their pain. Listening enables us to come alongside them and help them carry that sorrow.
When we listen, we are giving the person the gifts of time, attention, and support. Our listening helps them experience care and compassion.
It may be that as we support someone going through a loss, we will need to listen multiple times to the same information. When someone grieves a loss, they often need to rehash the event, the details, and the context multiple times. By patiently listening to them as often as they need to talk, we assist the person in their grieving process so that they can begin to heal and move forward. Most likely the rehashing will gradually subside.
It is also important that we listen with empathy, and not try to fix the situation or offer platitudes. When we quickly try to fix the situation or advise that the person shouldn’t worry, we actually are short-circuiting their healing process. They will feel misunderstood, alone, or even guilty for struggling with their loss. Then they aren’t just wrestling with their grief; they have the added challenge of also feeling guilty for wrestling with their grief. They won’t feel safe to bring it up with us again. They will feel alone.
Years ago I had to work through the deep grief of the loss of my dad. I still remember a well-intentioned friend telling me that it was going to be okay, my dad was in heaven, and he was in a much better place. Even now, I recall feeling like I was suffocating and wanting to run away from the conversation. Although she was speaking truth to me, I was not in a place where I could receive it. What I needed was a listening ear, empathetic patience, and time. I needed her to just listen.
3. Check in with the person. Make it a point to stay in contact with them. Periodically check in with them by calling or texting to see how they are doing. In general, people are usually pretty good about checking in with someone right after there has been a loss but then they tend to taper off rather quickly. When we continue to check in with someone who has experienced a loss, we let them know that they are important to us, that we really do care, and that they do not have to face the loss and loneliness alone. We offer them the encouragement and strength they need to continue in their grieving and healing process.
Since I lost my beloved dog, I have continued to receive calls and texts from family and good friends. They truly have shown me love and care. I truly have been encouraged. Even though it still is hard and I continue to miss my sweet dog, I am doing a little bit better every day. I know that is due in large part to the kindness that I have received from others who have asked, listened repeatedly, and continued to check in with me.
When we continue to check in with someone who has experienced a loss, we let them know that they are important to us, that we really do care, and that they do not have to face the loss and loneliness alone.
There are times when we all need others to come alongside us and care for us, especially given what we are going through right now with the quarantine. Let’s commit ourselves to encouraging others who are going through a loss or a hard time by asking, listening, and checking in with them. By doing so, we can make their grieving a little bit easier.
Willa Williams, MA, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She works at the Biola Counseling Center as a therapist and at the Biola Center for Marriage and Relationships as the Consulting Therapist. She has a Master of Arts in Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL) and a Master of Arts in Counseling in Psychology from Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL). She is Level 3 Trained in the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, a Certified Prepare/Enrich Facilitator, and graduate of the Couples Institute, Level 1. Before coming to Biola, she served overseas at the Spanish Bible Institute in Barcelona, Spain, where she taught a class on counseling skills for pastors and served as the staff therapist for the students. She has been married for more than 30 years and has two adult sons and two lovely daughters-in-love. She has a passion for healthy relationships and enjoys working with couples as well as individuals. She appreciates the immense impact that healthy marriages and relationships have on couples as well as future generations.