Folks, this has come up a few times with friends who have lost loved ones during the past couple years, so please allow me to make the following Public Service Announcement.
People, if you know someone who has just lost someone close to them, feel free to assume that they are grieving. Hard. And by "just" lost someone, I mean within the past 18 months at least. Death takes a very long time to get used to. It doesn't matter if it is expected or not, it doesn't matter if it is quick or slow, it doesn't matter if it is an aging parent or an unborn child. Death is a finality on a scale that you never experience in any other part of life so it is reasonable to assume that it is not something you get over quickly.
In our modern culture, we are not very well acquainted with death. We have lost our grief customs and most people — completely ignorant of the experience in their own lives — treat the bereaved like they suffered a minor embarrassment instead of a major psychology-altering life event. In the hopes that this might bring comfort to someone out there, here then are four ways you can express the care I know you feel about a friend's deep suffering:
1. Be Willing to Talk About It.
Please don't insist on drilling the bereaved about their experience and demanding connection from them at a time when they cannot handle any more demands. However, you should be open and willing to talk about it. When you see the person, express your condolences, even if you are worried they are insufficient. If you know an event is coming up — a major holiday, the deceased person's birthday, the anniversary of their passing — say something about it. If something, especially months later, makes you think of the deceased, mention it. One of the biggest worries we all have is that we will be forgotten. Pretending like the deceased never existed or that their loss isn't extremely painful is just about the worst thing you could do. The vast majority of people want — need — to talk about it. Judgement free.
2. Bring Cookies.
OK, it doesn't have to be cookies. But people, as a matter of course, used to bring food to a grieving family. For some reason, I don't see people doing that anymore. I really think food is a very core way that people connect to each other — why else do we always meet people for coffee or lunch? I know it feels weird to be like: "Sorry your dad died. Here's a lasagna. All better now, right?" But the scale of it really doesn't matter. People know that nothing can bring back their loved ones. It's just nice to know that the people still around care enough to bring physical sustenance.
3. Employ the Platinum Standard.
The Golden Rule is to treat others as you would want to be treated. The Platinum Rule is to treat others how they would want to be treated. This is not easy! I feel like I spend most of my life trying to figure out how someone else wants to be treated and cleaning up the pieces after failing miserably. But, it's still a good idea to spend a moment reflecting on that person and what sort of comfort they in particular would want. Don't give a stuffed animal to someone who dislikes a lot of stuff in their house; skip flowers for someone who gets headaches easily. Again, this is not easy, and most times you will fail, but it's nice to try.
4. Comfort in, Dump Out
This one comes from "How not to say the wrong thing," in an April 2013 L.A. Times. I highly recommend the original article, but basically it says to imagine that the bereaved person is the middle of several concentric circles. His or her spouse or best friend is the next circle, closest friends and family are the next circle, then more distant friends and family, etc., etc. When someone you know is going through hard stuff, it is natural to feel angry, scared, sad or frustrated, too. In fact, it's great that you care about them so much! But handle those emotions by "dumping out" to someone in a more distant circle of friends than you are to the bereaved. That way you can be sure to only put "comfort in" to the most inner circle and particularly to the sufferer themselves. Otherwise, you risk adding to their suffering or making them responsible for cleaning up your negative emotions — comforting YOU, instead of the other way around.