How To Comfort A Grieving Friend: 7 Keys – Hope 103.2

How To Comfort A Grieving Friend: 7 Keys

Chris Hall, a psychologist specialising in bereavement, offers keys on how to comfort someone who’s grieving. His top tips are being present, and listening.

By Clare BruceTuesday 12 Apr 2016Hope BreakfastRelationshipsReading Time: 6 minutes

Listen: Chris Hall on how to support a friend or family member in their grief.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, will need to comfort a friend or relative who has lost a loved one, and is grieving.

For some people, particularly those who are already warm and nurturing types, this may come easily. Others clam up and avoid their friend, perhaps because they are afraid of the subject or death, or are nervous that they’ll do or say the wrong thing.

But avoidance is the worst thing we can do for our grieving friend, according to Chris Hall, head of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement.

In a chat to Hope 103.2’s breakfast hosts Dan and Laura, Chris offered a series of helpful keys to supporting a grieving friend. He said that in his experience as a psychologist specialising in grief, the most common complaint from grieving people is that they feel forgotten.

Grief is the price we pay for love. We all will experience it. It’s really important that we don’t avoid someone who’s been bereaved.

“I get far more comments from bereaved people who are saddened and disappointed that people haven’t presented, rather than complaints about somebody being too present in their life, or wanting to be too helpful,” he said.

That’s why it’s important not to be shy of reaching out to your grieving friend.

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“Grief is the price we pay for love,” Mr Hall said. “It’s unavoidable. We all will experience it. It’s really important that we don’t avoid someone who’s been bereaved.

“I think sometimes, because of our concern about saying or doing the wrong thing, often people don’t say or do anything,” Mr Hall said. “Bereaved people feel even more alone than at any other time.”

1 – Reach Out, And Let Your Friend Set The Limits

Woman comforting a friend

Although some people are very private about their grief, others may need a lot of connection and conversation around it.

Approach your friend or family member in the same way you would in the normal course of your relationship. If you normally spend a lot of time together, offer your time and allow your friend to say yes or no.

“I think we need to think about support in terms of the relationship we’ve had with this person before this event’s happened,” Mr Hall said. “The mistakes we make are often where we don’t respond.

“We need to also allow people to set their own limits. Sometimes if we think ‘maybe I’m being too intrusive’, it takes us off the hook and we feel that perhaps we don’t need to do anything. I’d always encourage people, ‘reach out to people and let them set the limits to what might be useful’.”

2 – Remember There is No ‘Normal’ Grieving Process

Everybody grieves in their own way, and there’s no right or wrong, so it’s best simply to listen, rather than offer advice.

“It’s important that we don’t think in terms of what we might do if we were in their shoes,” Mr Hall said. “We need to be present for the person who’s grieving. We need to pick up the phone, write a letter, and email, call by, arrange a visit.”

3 – Listen With Compassion

A senior man grieving

All the experts agree that listening is one of the most important things we can do to be a friend.

“I love the expression that ‘God gave us two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in those proportions’,” Chris Hall said.

“It’s far more important that we listen and give space for people to talk about whatever is happening in their lives, rather than just fill those sometimes awkward silences with lots and lots of words.”

The US organisation ‘helpguide’, which offers support for those dealing with a range of emotional issues, says that it’s best to listen with compassion and without judgment.

Founders Robert and Jeanne Segal say it’s important to be able to sit in silence, accept your friend’s feelings, and let them talk about their loss as much as they need to.

“Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss,” they say.

4 – Humour And Light-Hearted Conversation Are OK

While death and bereavement are very serious, painful aspects of life that need to be treated with dignity, it’s important not to be sombre all the time with your grieving friend.

Happiness is actually a common part of a grieving person’s life too.

Often funny memories or humour are a way of deflating some of the intensity of grief.

“We know that for bereaved people, happiness is far more common than sadness,” Mr Hall said. “Grief tends to come in waves and is often kind of episodic for people.”

It’s often more helpful to simply be your usual self with your friend, and allow conversation to flow naturally.

“A lot of grief and grief support is about sharing memories,” said Mr Hall. “Often these are funny memories, or using humour as a way of deflating some of the intensity of grief. People aren’t wanting their friends to arrive wearing black and being all kind of ‘down’. It’s really about a relationship that continues.

“Humour and conversation about anything and everything is fine. Peoples’ lives continue and so conversations about the everyday and the ordinary are still part of that relationship.”

5 – Practical Help Is A Great Support

Friends holding hands

It’s very helpful to give practical support when someone is grieving.

“Making a casserole or bringing some pizzas around can be as useful as the emotional support,” Mr Hall said.

Other practical things you can do may include:

  • Taking phonecalls and receiving guests in your friend’s home
  • Helping with bills or insurance forms, funeral and will arrangements
  • Helping with the cooking or housework
  • Giving them a lift to appointments
  • Looking after the pets or the garden
  • Taking them out to lunch or a movie to help them escape their ‘normal’
  • Accompany them to a support group meeting or counselling appointment

6 – Avoid Cliches

Many counsellors, as well as those who’ve experienced grief themself, agree that it’s important to avoid using clichés that you don’t really mean.

These include statements like, ‘I understand how you feel’ – when you really don’t – or telling someone to ‘look at what you have to be thankful for’ – when what they need is support in their pain – or telling your friend to ‘move on’.

The most helpful thing you can do as a friend is simply to be present.

“Realise that the power really is in the presence of another human being, listening to that person, giving them space,” Mr Hall said.

7 – Be There For The Long Hall

Woman talking to a friend who is sad

Remember that grief can take a long time, and be there for them for the long haul after all the flowers and cards have stopped coming.

Touch base with your friend when important milestone days come around, such as Christmas, anniversaries, the birthday of their loved one, and the date that they passed away. And remember for years to come.

As Chris Hall puts it, “you need to think about grief in terms of months and years, rather than days and weeks”.

More Info

For those who are grieving, or supporting a grieving loved one, your local community health centre, church or local GP are all helpful places to go for support.

There are also many great resources online, such as the Lifeline crisis support service, or the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement.

The HelpGuide website also offers a helpful list of tips on supporting someone who’s grieving.