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with sympathy: what can I say to my grieving friend?

Sinceresympathy

Thank you for your kind thoughts and words about the loss of my sister.  I always appreciate it that you take time to read my thoughts, ponder it and use it in whatever way you can – whether it's identifying with loss and grief yourself, having a moment of gratitude for the people in your life, or just sympathizing with a pain you have never had to deal with before.

I have been asked, on occasion, what one should do or say when their friend is dealing with grief.  I'll share some thoughts with you in case you ever need them. 

When my sister first died, I was in a place in my life that was entirely non-conducive to grieving (which begs the question, what situation IS conducive?).  I had just had a serious breakup with my boyfriend, I was living with my best friend and her family, and I had to start my first post-college job just days after the funeral.  I was grappling with an intense pain and had almost no where to go to be alone with my grief.  And when I was with my friends, I was surprised at the way they reacted to my grief, and the things even my best friends would say.  I was surprised at the expectations they had of me just a few months after it all happened.  People were frankly impatient and uncomfortable with the broken version of myself and really wanted me to sort of, well, get back to normal.  They had their own ideas of how I should be, what I should do, how much or how often I should cry, and what activities I should resume and when.  I just wanted solitude, and time, and for people to quit trying to make a permanently bad situation better. 

Grief is not something you can fix, or even understand, or plan out.  If you're going through it, you just have to go through it.  And if a friend is going through it, you just have to let her.  Call her to check in.  Be there with a box of Kleenex and a listening ear and be prepared to feel uncomfortable at times.  You may not know what to say.  That's okay.  Don't stress yourself out trying to make it all right. As long as your friend is not spiraling into destructive behavior (excessive drinking, suicidal thoughts, etc), then let her deal with it her way.  As my spinning instructor always says, "This is YOUR ride."  If you're dealing with a grieving friend, remember – this is her ride.  And it may be a long one.  Hang in there.  She really does need you.

If you're one of the grieving ones, here's my best advice: Have patience with the living.  One of the biggest tragedies of grief is the broken relationships it leaves in its wake.  That's because grief is a necessarily self-absorbed process.  The grieving person is going through an intense number and range of emotions.  And the friends of the grieving are looking for a day when its not "all about you." Your friends and family are probably trying their best.  They may say the wrong thing or rub you the wrong way.  That's because it's a tough thing to be the friend of someone in such un-fixable pain.  They want to make it better, and they can't.  So have some patience with them, too.  And keep this in mind: the hole in your heart cannot be filled by any friend, family member, or addiction. This is LOSS.  The only one who can truly help you heal is God.  So don't look for His mercy and grace in any person or thing on this earth.  You will only be disappointed. 

I ran across this page in a book that I thought I'd share with you.  If your friend is grieving, this a good example of re-framing your approach to him or her.  If you are the grieving one, I encourage you to give this to your friends. 

What Can I Say to My Grieving Friend?

Instead of: "I know exactly how you feel."
Try: "I can only imagine what you're going through."
 
Instead of: "At least he doesn't have to suffer anymore."
Try: "He suffered through a lot, didn't he?"
 
Instead of: "It's God's will."
Try: "One comfort I find is God's promise to never abandon us."
 
Instead of: "She wouldn't want you to grieve."
Try: "It's hard to say good-bye, isn't it?"
 
Instead of: "You can't be angry with God."
Try: "God understands even when we're upset."
 
Instead of: "At least you have other family members." [or any other "at least," for that matter]
Try: "There's no way to replace the one you've lost, is there?"
 
Instead of: "Don't you think it's time to get on with living your life?"
Try: "Everyone has to grieve in their own way, don't they?"
 
Instead of: "Don't talk about the funeral–it will only make you sad."
Try: "We can talk about whatever you want."
 
Instead of: "Time heals all wounds."
Try: "Time will lessen the pain, but you'll always have a part of him/her with you."

Instead of: "You've got to be strong."
Try: "I want you to know you can be yourself around me"
 
Excerpt from the book Disrupted:  Finding God in Illness & Loss by Virgil M. Fry, Houston, TX

[reprinted with permission]

Links of Interest:  A Reluctant Griever, Prayer of Grief

Carrie - Thank you for this perfectly timed advise. I have a friend who is grieving over a miscarriage and have been at a total loss over what to say to her. This helps a lot…thanks!

Karen - Your advise speaks volumes; thank you for your insight. Unless someone has gone through the same exact type of loss there is no way someone can even begin to understand. I find when I am unable to understand or empathize with a particular situation I fear that I will end up stumbling upon my words and saying something…well, something that is just wrong.
I remember when I was at the memorial service for the soldiers onboard the helicopter that crashed and standing in the receiving line waiting to speak with the widow of our unit’s commander that was onboard the flight. One scene kept playing over and over in my mind; LTC Fenty speaking at the pre-deployment briefing and continuously repeating “don’t worry, I will bring all of your husband’s home.”
When it was my turn to speak with Kristin I squeezed her hand and just kept repeating “I’m so sorry,” over and over again. I don’t think I said anything else and have always regretted not making the encounter more personal or meaningful. Looking back on the scene, I know that there is nothing that I could have said that would have made her feel better but I still wonder.
Thank you for your “What Can I Say to My Grieving Friend?” list. I cannot even begin to fathom the experience of losing a sibling. Your previous post brought tears to my eyes because this Friday I will be serving as Matron (yuck…what a name) of Honor in my younger sister’s wedding. Growing up, we were never as close as you and Lora but we’re bonding as we mature into young married women. All too often we take life on this wonderful Earth for granted and I want to say thank you for sharing your story, your pain and your never-ending struggle to make sense of the horrific tragedy that was put upon your family.
Thank you.
P.s. Have you ever considered writing a book about Lora and your experience? You have such a way with words and from what you have written and shared with all of us has painted the picture of a very special sisterly-bond. Lora was a beautiful person, inside and out; those who knew her and were touched by her soul were/are very lucky people…very lucky.

Sarah - This is wonderfully written. I had a boyfriend die from leukemia 14 years ago when I was 23. We were apart at the time due to his parents’ disapproval and the stress it caused on his health. I had to find out he was dying from our pastor. I didn’t love him any less yet I wasn’t considered a legitimate griever by some. In fact, I recall my manager at my job saying, “didn’t you expect him to die?” I had to honestly answer that no, I expected him to beat the cancer. It took me some time to recover and the pain is still there a tiny bit for such a short-lived yet intense relationship. I think about him infrequently but I always feel that I was given an edge in life when I should have been youthful and free. It doesn’t compare to the loss of a beloved sister, though.

Andrea - Hi,
My name is Andrea and I’m working on the Spinning Nation event. I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s the first nationwide Spinning fundraising event of it’s kind, and we have a very small staff putting it together. If you like the idea after you take a look at what we’re doing and wouldn’t mind mentioning us on your blog, it would help a lot. If not, I understand. Blogs are a very personal thing and I’d never ask if it weren’t for good causes. Thanks, you can reach me at andrea@sportsgrants.org. Our website is http://www.spinningnation.org.
Best regards,
Andrea

Gift of Green - That is a great list of alternatives. This book is similar – it’s getting a little old (1997) but it’s still a goodie – it’s “When Life Become Precious” : http://www.amazon.com/When-Life-Becomes-Precious-Essential/dp/0553378694

pInky - Excellent post, Crystal.
I’m so glad you put this up.
After Angel died, I felt many of the same things.

Christine - You handle so many of the challenges life throws our way with such grace. You have such an amazing way of taking things that seem so complicated (which they are!) and making them manageable…These words of advice are really so valuable.

Ruth - I’m sorry for the loss of your sister. Your post was very timely for me. My own little sister, 18 mos younger than me, passed away Aug 23 at the age of 24. Sadly her passing was a suicide, which leaves so many unanswered questions and emotions. We flew home for the funeral with our 3 children, then came back up here to my husbands base 3500 miles away. It was hard because no one here knew what had happened. My husband immediately went back to work the day after we returned. There was no time to grieve, to process anything. I had to call or email to get information, find out how to obtain police reports, tox screens, autopsy results, when the headstone would be ready, etc. It doesn’t end with just the burial and I don’t think people realize that it is an ongoing process, it doesn’t end with the funeral.
I’m going home for the first time since Aug in a couple wks and everyone thinks it’s a pleasure trip but it’s not really. Being so far away makes it seem a bit surreal and I know seeing her grave for the first time, with the headstone and everything is going to be very difficult. People also need to know that grief is not a straight line, it zigzags and circles. As sisters there are always so many little dates, little things that remind you of her that others simply don’t understand.

Regina - Thank you so much, Crystal, for this post. I have 2 close friends who are grieving deeply. One friend lost her 18 year old daughter in a car accident and her husband committed suicide last year, as he just couldn’t take the pain. The other friend lost her 18 year old son. I really appreciate this post and the advice.

E - Thank you. I have been mourning the loss of my sister since February. She was 25 and died unexpectedly during childbirth. It has been very difficult as i live far away from home and it was very unexpected. I feel like something was stolen form me and have been very conflicted about my friendships which seemed to have disappeared. It seems like no one knows what to say so they don;t say anything. It is like they are pretending it never even happened. I always imagined them appearing like birds to cover me, but instead I have never felt so alone. I wish I could forward this article to them. I am glad to know how it feels to lose a sibling so suddenly, even though I wish that no one ever had to feel this way.

Chelsea Z. - Ugh. You are so right.
After I miscarried my sister told me something along the lines of “at least you have two children already”…SO? They don’t replace the one I lost.
I had signed up for a pregnancy newsletter and I just logged into a seldom used email account to recieve a message titled “Congratulations, you are 36 weeks pregnant” :(…the due date I would of had is rapidly approaching (much faster, I think, than if I would of carried to term). Dec. 21st is going to be a hard day.