How Not To Talk To A Grieving Friend

They met in their college library. He had a killer smile and she was smitten. On their first date, they laughed, shared dreams and began an ongoing conversation that stretched across decades of marriage, parenthood, and dual careers.

In his mid 50s, Dan complained of abdominal pain. Nothing unusual, he’d had it before. But this time it didn’t abate. It was diagnosed as late-stage pancreatic cancer, silent and unseen. Six months later, after a series of procedures, he lost the battle and Sara lost her soulmate, the father of her children, the man with the killer smile. “I can’t go on without him,” she whispered, “but I will.”

And she did. She called my office, began psychotherapy and unsealed her heart. Her narrative was punctuated with friends’ pitch-imperfect, sometimes bruising reactions to her tragic loss. She, and later Vivian, explain when a response is helpful, when not and the reasons for each. Their candor speaks for many and therefore informs suggested guidelines for….. how to talk to a grieving friend.

““All of a sudden my husband of twenty-seven years was a taboo topic never to be mentioned lest I burst into tears."”

When Sara gradually re-entered her social world, she was touched by messages gathering in her inbox, but less prepared for the silent remove she encountered face-to-face. A once-friendly neighbor waved from across the street and quickly slipped behind the door. Long-term colleagues offered tired platitudes, others nodded and slowly inched away. At some level she knew their reticence was not borne of indifference, that they were running from loss and grief and the whole specter of death. “But there’s no running for me,” she said quietly. “Grief stalks me day after empty day until I sleep hoping to dream…of Dan.”

She faced a different set of issues with intimate friends. Several were available day and night, and she was grateful. She especially looked forward to times with Lucy, her dearest friend, where talk had been easy, nothing censored, nothing judged.

Until Dan died. Then Lucy did an about-face. Their once animated conversations became airless, leeched of the spontaneity they once enjoyed. Worse yet, whenever Dan’s name came up, Lucy steered the conversation in another direction. “All of a sudden my husband of twenty-seven years was a taboo topic never to be mentioned lest I burst into tears. Heaven forbid!”

“If truth be told, talking about Dan is what comforts me most. I love to tell stories about my husband. I love to tell them out loud to friends who will listen and trade stories of their own. I wish I could line up everyone who ever knew Dan and talk about him forever. The ‘don’t go there’ routine is wrong-headed,” she insists. “It’s designed to comfort the caregiver NOT the bereaved.”

““If truth be told, talking about Dan is what comforts me most."”

Many genuinely tried to empathize by deluging Sara with memories of their own loss, eclipsing HER need to bare her soul. Others likened her loss to one of a vastly different order of magnitude.

“I know what you’re going through,” sixty-year-old Luke told Sara’s twenty-year-old son. “I lost my father a year ago. I know how you’re feeling, Pete.”

“No, you don’t,” Pete wanted to shout. “Your father got to see you graduate from college, go to law school, become an attorney, hang out with your wife and play with your kids.”

In time Sara began going to concerts, meeting friends, engaging the world with an unforced smile. Yet her mood would plummet without warning. A song, a scent, a photo of Dan or something she couldn’t name would send her to a corner where only solitude held relief. Friends grew impatient. “You’ve got to get on with it,” they’d urge. “You need a change, go on a cruise, meet someone new.”

“Then how DO we help a grieving friend?”

Sara was only following the inevitable peaks and valleys of the healing process where days of heightened energy give way to ones of torpor. “Ask me how I am TODAY,” Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, said after the death of her husband, referring to mourning’s nonlinear course.

Respecting a friend’s episodic retreat hastens rather than hinders recovery.

Unlike Sara, Vivian sought therapy as a refuge of last resort. After the sudden death of her only daughter, she struggled to face another day. Losing a child, regardless of age, violates nature’s generational plan and tears at one of the most visceral forms of human attachment. Both Vivian and her husband, Ron, were riven by a grief managed in ways uniquely their own. Ron suffered silently, seeking sanctuaries to grieve alone. Vivian, by contrast, longed to express sorrow openly, to be heard, to tell, retell and tell again. Such differences inevitably collide. What works for one, abrades the other. Ron’s silence was tantamount to desertion. Her affect chafed at his wounds. Trusted confidantes can help immeasurably at times like these, but even they can`t long bear the weight of inconsolable grief. Psychotherapy for each was especially helpful in breaching their feared impasse.

In the aftermath of such tragedy, friends rallied around, held their children a little tighter and offered deeply felt compassion. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to get through this,” they cried. “I can’t even imagine what this is like for you. How could this happen?” Both Ron and Vivian were moved by such words, but Vivian felt them tug at newborn efforts to cope with unbearable pain. “I know better than anyone how devastating this is,” she confided, “but I`m trying to get through one day without a migraine in my heart.” When offering sympathy let the parent be your guide.

In a similar vein, “It is God’s will; he is in God’s hands; he is resting in peace” are religious references that either comfort or alienate depending on one’s faith or lack thereof. Such blessings are welcome and fully embraced by those with profound religious beliefs. But they offer meager solace to those more secular and can inadvertently offend.

Then how DO we help a grieving friend? Based on forty years of clinical practice, this much I’ve learned: An overarching guideline for friends of the bereaved is simply… follow their lead.