You mean well ... but are your actions doing more harm than good?
When tragedy hits, we want to believe we're the "good friend" who, of course, rises to the occasion by giving love and support. We want to help, but so often we fumble. We get it all wrong; we say the wrong thing, we do the wrong thing, and in the final analysis—it seems we've done more harm than good.
When a close friend died recently, leaving behind a wife and four teenaged children, I found the insensitivity shown to them by ordinarily kind and caring people completely shocking! No one intended their callous behavior. Maybe they were nervous, or maybe they were ill prepared for witnessing raw emotions on display, but in their stumbling to make themselves feel less uncomfortable, they made a difficult situation far worse for the grieving family.
So, the next time someone calls you for comfort after a significant loss or heartbreak of some kind, here's how to ease their pain without adding to it:
7 ways to avoid making matters worse:
1. DO NOT talk incessantly about yourself. This is not the time to discuss your vacation plans, your financial worries or your child's recent trip to the doctor. When in doubt, say nothing. Silence, when combined with a heartfelt hug, is faultless and is considerably preferable to insensitive babble.
2. DO NOT act like a martyr. Sweeping in with a clipboard of things to do and acting like their heaven-sent savior is degrading. Instead, quietly tidy a bathroom, take out the garbage or collect empty plates and cans, without acting put out by it.
3. DO NOT overstay your welcome. Whether it is two hours, two days or two weeks, look for non-verbal cues that your friend needs you to leave.. No grieving family should feel obligated to entertain you, transport you, include you, feed you, inform you or consult you. If you must stay with the grieving family, make their lives easier while in their home and be sure to give them privacy.
4. DO NOT hijack someone else's tragedy. Your feelings of pain or grief over the situation should not overshadow that of the immediate family (or person most directly suffering). Reflect the family's emotional needs from moment to moment, whether it is with humor, a listening ear or a hug. No matter how lost you may feel, forcing the family to nurse your grief adds to their misery.
5. DO NOT create a social media circus of sympathy. Sharing obituaries and details of services on social media is appropriate. Over-sharing and using someone else's tragedy in an attention seeking, "like-my-post" way is NOT!
6. DO NOT utter the words, "all things happen for a reason." To imagine that their lives will be better off because of a devastating loss is inconceivable to someone in mourning. Even if you're thinking it, don't say it.
7. DO NOT infer someone can be replaced. No one can be replaced—not a child, a friend or a husband. It is shockingly insensitive to suggest a spouse can remarry, a couple can just have another child or that children can substitute their father with a close family friend or uncle.
So now that you know what NOT to do. If you still feel compelled to support your friend, here are 6 fail-proof ways to help:
1. DO bring food items that are able to freeze, in case they've already received a monsoon of casseroles.
2. DO bring beverages. A lot of them: water, comforting teas, soft drinks, but think wisely before deciding to offer alcohol in a time of despair. And don't forget, there is great comfort in a take-away gallon of hot coffee.
3. DO bring paper goods. These include tissues, toilet paper and paper plates. Unless a death coincides with a recent trip to Costco, most homes are not ready for the influx of sniffling, hungry guests.
4. DO spearhead an activity that occupies a varied group. The best games are simple. You'd be surprised how welcomed a competitive a game of Old Maid becomes when played by multiple generations.
5. DO respect the requests of the family. If they request privacy, please grant them privacy. If a family member chooses to remain alone or take a nap, do not assume they would prefer to speak to you.
6. DO keep in mind that people remember how you make them feel, not necessarily the exact words you use. The most soothing thing you can do for the grieving is to provide love: today, tomorrow and years into the future. Time does not heal all wounds. Time changes life and people adopt a new normal. Being nurtured with love is the best way for a friend to move forward into a new life.