Heartbreak

4 Things You Should Never Do When A Friend Is Grieving (& What To Do Instead)

Photo: Shipilov77777 / shutterstock.com
woman looks into camera with sad eyes, hugging a man

When I was six years old, my best friend died unexpectedly. I didn’t completely understand everything that went on around that occurrence, but I do know that experience initiated an ever-present ripple effect throughout my life. 

One notable result of this ripple effect drew me to volunteer for hospice years ago, during which time I became a certified Grief Coach — an emotional support person for those crossing over and those left behind. I learned a lot about grief in my volunteer work and even more as I continue working with clients dealing with grief. 

Grief is an unpleasant emotion and can be heart-wrenching, taking us off center for a long time. In the case of a loved one dying, we all have an understanding of the grief that can ensue. As unique and varied as everyone is, that's how unique and varied dealing with grief can be.

Here are some methods that are best to avoid when supporting someone experiencing grief — along with some helpful practices to employ instead.

RELATED: What Grief Really Means And How To Know What's Normal Or Healthy When You're Grieving

Four painful mistakes to avoid when supporting a grieving friend

This list is by no means complete, yet it provides valuable information to consider the next time we find ourselves walking alongside someone experiencing deep sorrow. 

1. Never try to stop a grieving person from crying

When someone cries, our first reaction may be to say, "Oh, don't cry!"

When we tell someone not to cry, we can make them even more self-conscious than they already are. Indirectly, we may be implying to them that crying provides an appearance of being weak or that they are not strong enough to “hold it together.” In our lives, we may even have been told to not cry so it’s easier for other people grieving to not cry too.

By not crying we may be attempting to make the situation seem as though it’s not happened or had less impact. Also, the grieving person may already not want to cry themselves but are unable to control the tears as their grief overtakes them, creating another layer of discomfort.

Instead, let them cry  — and cry with them. 

Crying is therapeutic and necessary in the grief experience. When people suppress tears on an ongoing basis, the emotion tends to find a way to come out in other, usually more harmful ways physiologically and psychologically, like anger, anxiety, reckless behavior, and more. 

We also need to recognize that we may be the ones uncomfortable with crying or not wanting to cry ourselves. If we know we have this discomfort, we need to be honest with ourselves and the people around us so we can learn how to create a safe space for them to grieve.

One of the best ways is to give them permission to cry, and us as well.

RELATED: 7 Proven Physical And Mental Health Benefits Of Crying

2. Never assume that people's grief timeline or experience matches yours or someone else's

Comparing your perceptions of someone's grief with another person's grief is something to steer clear from. While there may be some instances where comparing methods of coping may be helpful, this type of comparison is generally non-productive. We don't know what other people's relationships were like with the deceased nor what their individual grief processes hold.

The tight emotional roller coaster ride that accompanies grief can go to varying depths depending upon the person.

We must also consider what else is going on in that person's life that can affect their capacity to grieve. To compare people's grief journeys discounts everyone's progress, individual mindset, and emotional well-being.

What works for one person in dealing with their grief may be detrimental for someone else. 

Instead, learn how grief affects people differently. 

Each experience we have can be a learning one — especially if we know that grief is uncomfortable for or unfamiliar to us. We can then learn new ways to deal with our discomfort while supporting someone else.

Ask questions about how they’re feeling, what they’re doing, and if/how you can help them.

We can reflect upon our own words and actions to determine if they are more to help us feel better and more comfortable or if they are genuinely intended to assist and soothe the person in grief.

RELATED: Grief Shopping: Why You Might Be Spending More After Experiencing Loss

3. Never assume you need to fill the silence with words

Conversations with someone in grief can feel one-sided as they may be quiet or unaware of various ongoings due to their situation.

While some people in grief may enjoy the distraction, depending upon where they are, the conversation is likely to eventually remind them of the loved one they’re missing.

In some instances, people in grief may not be able to focus on or retain what we’re saying due to their mind wandering or the attempt to ward off a crying spell at the moment.

Silence, in many cases, can be golden.

Instead, create space in conversations with them. 

Conversation lulls give the grieving person a chance to process and permission to bring up something that's been on their mind or heart. Even if you've heard the same story 20 times, let the person talk.

Grief can be traumatic for people and talking about or reliving their experience can be more helpful than we realize.

Even those who say or seem as though they’re doing ok, sometimes a space in conversation opens the door for them to share things they may not have realized they wanted to share.

With a listening ear available, thoughts and feelings surface that they need to say or discuss.

And in doing so, we’re helping them heal, one moment at a time.

RELATED: 6 Ways To Find Your Voice After Staying Silent For Too Long

4. Never expect them to reach out if they need something

Most of us have told someone in grief, "Let me know if you need anything," or something similar. The truth is, if they need anything, they likely won't reach out.

Sometimes they don’t know who they can really trust with how fragile they may feel, or they don’t want to add a burden to our already busy lives. They may also not have the wherewithal to know what is it that they need to even think about reaching out.

They may find it daunting to muster up the energy to get out of bed or make a meal let alone assemble the mental and emotional capacity to connect.

Instead, check in on them periodically.

Remember people in grief are experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. Every day can be a challenge and certain times of day can be better than others.

When we check up on them with a note or visit, we present the opportunity for respite if they’re open to it.

Even if they decide not to engage with you, checking up on them goes a long way when they may be feeling alone or not themselves. Grief is a lot to unpack, and we may not always know how deeply powerful, heartful, and appreciated a voicemail, text, or visit can be.

As tough as grief is to experience or watch someone else face, having a support team of emotionally aware and capable people is immeasurable.

Knowing what supports others in this situation can sustain them until a "new normal" develops.

RELATED: How To Recognize And Overcome Your Grief Triggers In 5 Steps

Pamela Aloia is a certified grief coach, reiki master/teacher, and author helping people become better versions of themselves through individual sessions, energy work, meditation, and more. 

Sign up for YourTango's free newsletter!