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Author Topic: What to say/do for a friend who's grieving
Christine
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This morning I got an e-mail from a friend telling me that his brother died. It was a shock, to be honest. He was only 31 and they say it was natural causes. I know they were very close and this has to be devastating for him.

My friend and I haven't been closer in a while. We were in college and for a few years after, but now we talk 2-3 times a year and see each other once a year. I can't even make the funeral because it's in another city, which I feel lousy about. I sent off flowers with a message saying, "Deepest Sympathy" and all I could think was, "How inadequate!"

I've never lost anyone particularly close to me, certainly nothing like a brother. What do you say that doesn't come across as trite? Is there anything I can do that won't come across as intrusive? I'll be back in my hometown (where my friend lives) over Thanksgiving weekend. Is it better to give him space or offer him some company?

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Farmgirl
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quote:
Is it better to give him space or offer him some company?
There is no generic answer for this, because different people grieve differently. I would err on the side of offering company, because if he needs it, he probably won't ask; but he can always refuse if it's offered.

I don't remember much of any of the "words" people said to me after my father was killed. But I remember the touches, the hugs, the acts of kindness. So I can't recommend at this point (when you are far away) any particular words that are better than others.... Just let him know you are thinking about him and care for him and what he's going through.

[Frown]

FG

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pooka
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He could probably use a diversion, if you can afford to take him out.

There are two things that bothered me when my son died, one was "I understand" and the other was some form of "It's better this way/it's God's will/they're more needed in heaven/you'll be stronger for this."

Heaven forbid I endure any future losses, I would like a card from someone saying "That sucks." Unfortunately, most funerals involve some degree of relative that probably wouldn't get it.

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BlackBlade
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If I as your friend sent you an email informing you of the death of a sibling, it would be because I thought you should know, and likely because I hoped you could help console me.

If you knew his sibling well or even little more then an aquaintance I would write an email back telling him how you saw the sibling. Laud their qualities, maybe recount an experience you had with them that was memorable, express your willingness to support your friend in their time of need if they just need somebody to listen.

That's what I would do.

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erosomniac
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Offer the company, but don't be forceful about it.

I'd check with anyone who sees him more frequently beforehand to find out how he's doing, so you know whether to tread lightly or to act as though everything's normal until the subject comes up naturally.

It's a tough thing to deal with, though: I'm never sure how to deal with adversity in others. A friend's father was recently declared a ward of the state and sent to a mental institution (alcoholism destroyed his brain). My friend's way of dealing with it is to make really awkward jokes about his dad being a nutjob. I have no idea how to react to that - laughing with him would make me look like an enormously callous asshole, but remaining quiet just highlights how ridiculously awkward the situation is.

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Javert Hugo
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Oh, I'm sorry to hear it.

People do grieve differently, so there's no perfect comment other than "I'm sorry" and then being there for them if they want to talk/be distracted.

There are lots of things that are potentially bad. Pooka listed the big ones - no "they are better off" or, heaven forbid, "it's for the best."

Mostly, no deep statements at all. Expressions of personal sympathy are always appropriate and are most likely to be the most helpful as well.

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Squish
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quote:
Originally posted by Farmgirl:
quote:
Is it better to give him space or offer him some company?
There is no generic answer for this, because different people grieve differently. I would err on the side of offering company, because if he needs it, he probably won't ask; but he can always refuse if it's offered.

I don't remember much of any of the "words" people said to me after my father was killed. But I remember the touches, the hugs, the acts of kindness. So I can't recommend at this point (when you are far away) any particular words that are better than others.... Just let him know you are thinking about him and care for him and what he's going through.

[Frown]

FG

I definitely agree with this. I think it's more comforting *knowing* that you're there for him. When my dad passed earlier this year, the offers to talk or hang out were welcome and the strong hugs here and there where definitely needed.

I think the only thing I remember upsetting me was the question: 'Are you okay?' It didn't matter how sincere the person was. I hated that question with a passion. I wanted to yell 'No sh*t Sherlock, I'm not okay' every time I heard it. I just think it's a silly question to ask someone, but that's just me.

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pooka
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Also "you seem to be handling it well" is bad.
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Javert Hugo
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Unfortunately, the only specific words I remember are the ones I hated.

The worst: "God arranged it for the best, so the woman your dad marries next can get married."

Really?? Really? The Lord killed my mother so some stranger would get to marry my dad? I'm going through this grief and trauma so whatshername gets laid? God thinks so little of my family that he happily ripped it apart to start another one??

I've never come so close to punching someone in my life.

So, basically, statements about the grand scheme of things are BAD.

Also bad: "She's in a better place." You know, while I'm a big fan of the afterlife, this place wasn't bad and considering how much my mother loved her family, I'm confident that she'd rather be on earth with her husband and children who love her than ANYWHERE without us. That's what that statement says - that they are better off away from you. No matter how good the place they are is, that's not cool to say to anyone. Also, probably not true.

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Noemon
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Squish, how did you feel/would you feel about someone asking how you're doing, rather than if you're okay? I don't know that I'd say either in that circumstance, but I can imagine myself saying the former. What I'd really be meaning was "I care about you, and I'm so sorry that there isn't something that I can do to make this easier for you, but I want you to know that your wellbeing is important to me", but I could see it coming out as "how are you doing?".

Kat, that's horrible. I think that that may be the single most inappropriate thing I've ever heard of someone saying to someone who is grieving without actively trying to be hurtful.

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pooka
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Yeah, that's bad. Sadly, I know of a couple of people I could imagine saying such a thing. They are so desperate to put a bright side on anything.
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erosomniac
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I've found the way that feels best to say and for me, at least, to hear a positive, optimistic response is "I'm really glad you're _______" in response to a positive update on my situation, e.g. "I'm really glad your parents were able to fly in in time."
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Squish
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Noemon, I think asking 'how are you doing?' is much better than 'are you okay'. I don't know if it's just because I was overly emotional about the subject but the yes/no manner of 'are you okay' just got to me. My feeling was that it's obviously 'no' so why ask me to say it out loud? To be polite to certain people, I had to say 'Yes, I'm fine' when in reality I was far from it. That's what killed.

To me, it feels more open by asking 'how are you doing'. You get the chance to respond with things that feel more truthful. Now that I think about it, unless I was extremely close to a person, it was easier for me to accept 'I'm here if you need me' kind of statements rather than questions. That and I'm extremely sensitive to the way a question is phrased... -_-

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pooka
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Yeah, if you say "No, I'm not okay" then an outburst of tears is pretty likely. At least for me.
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MightyCow
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I'd suggest offering to take them to some light comfort food. When my dad died, a friend hugging me and offering to take me out for ice cream or a cup of coffee always helped a little.
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Noemon
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quote:
Originally posted by Squish:
Noemon, I think asking 'how are you doing?' is much better than 'are you okay'. I don't know if it's just because I was overly emotional about the subject but the yes/no manner of 'are you okay' just got to me. My feeling was that it's obviously 'no' so why ask me to say it out loud? To be polite to certain people, I had to say 'Yes, I'm fine' when in reality I was far from it. That's what killed.

That makes a lot of sense.

quote:
unless I was extremely close to a person, it was easier for me to accept 'I'm here if you need me' kind of statements rather than questions.
Yeah, I think that I'd have to be pretty close to the person for "how are you doing?" to seem like an appropriate thing to say to them in that circumstance.
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Christine
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Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. I think I will at least make the offer to take him out Thanksgiving weekend. He can always say no.

quote:
Originally posted by pooka:
He could probably use a diversion, if you can afford to take him out.

There are two things that bothered me when my son died, one was "I understand" and the other was some form of "It's better this way/it's God's will/they're more needed in heaven/you'll be stronger for this."

Heaven forbid I endure any future losses, I would like a card from someone saying "That sucks." Unfortunately, most funerals involve some degree of relative that probably wouldn't get it.

I can't believe people told you it's better this way! Wow! I just can't even fathom why someone would say something like that.

"It's God's will" seems to come up a lot. I've never been tempted to say it, at least in part because I don't believe it. I'm not sure what I think about people who say it. It almost seems like they're trying to make sense of the world for their own benefit rather than trying to comfort a grieving parent/sibling/child. It never seems to make anyone feel better.

I didn't know you lost a son, pooka. That's awful. [Frown]

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Saephon
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Boy, I've heard some horrible "sympathetic" phrases in my time. I agree with what pretty much everyone has said so far. It seems like a lot of these tactless people are skipping straight ahead to the final stage of grief where you make sense of what has happened and accept it. "God's will" is neither healthy nor kind to someone who has just experienced loss! Maybe someday they might come to believe that, but really, keep that stuff away, and bring on the well wishes and hugs and offers for talking or going places.
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The Rabbit
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quote:
Originally posted by Christine:
What do you say that doesn't come across as trite? Is there anything I can do that won't come across as intrusive? I'll be back in my hometown (where my friend lives) over Thanksgiving weekend. Is it better to give him space or offer him some company?

I'm going to second everything that has been said here. Avoid any attempts to explain why this might be a good thing, telling about similar stories that eventually led to some unexpected benefit or speculating on why this was God's plan or how it could turn out terrific in some fictional end. Such comments are nearly always tactless.

If you believe in an after life and have previously shared that belief with your friend, it can be appropriate to reassure him that his brother isn't "gone forever" and that he they will eventually be reunited but the appropriateness of even these comments will depend on your personal convictions, the type of relationship you have with this friend and the particular moment you choose to share.

People are so different in the way they grieve its impossible to predict what your friend will need or want.
If he has alot of friends and family, then he will likely be surrounded by people and busy with arranagements until after the funeral. The days following the funeral when there is nothing left to do and no one left around are often the harder than the initial period of shock. A few weeks from now when you are in town for Thanksgiving maybe just the right timing. Then again, maybe not.

So here is my advice. A day or so after the funeral, give him a phone call. Ask him if he got the flowers then Tell him you just wanted to let him know that you are there for him as a friend. If he needs a listening ear, a hopeful monologue, a beer or just some one to distract him with something fun, you are available. Tell him that you will be in town for Thanksgiving and you are willing to do what ever he feels like doing while you are there.

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porcelain girl
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When you are in town, you might consider dropping off a care package. If your friends needs to talk, you will be available, and if he doesn't feel up to it, he will still know that you care.

I tend to ask "How 'you holding up?"

I try to make myself available enough that they know I care and that they can lean on me of they need to, but not omnipresent in case they need to work through some things alone. It is always tough to deal with, but erring on the side of being told they want to be alone is always better.

I had a good friend's brother pass away, and because I didn't know what to say when it happend, I erred on the side of doing too little. I still feel awful for having never brought it up or letting him or his family know I cared.

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The Rabbit
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quote:
Boy, I've heard some horrible "sympathetic" phrases in my time.
The following story is only slightly off topic and is 100 percent true. In a church class I shared some very personal thoughts about my the struggles my husband and I have had with infertility. Following the class, a woman came up and offered her sympathy and then told me about a friend of hers in a similar situation. Her husband had died and she eventually remarried to a man who was raising several children alone. I mean seriously. She expected me to find comfort in idea that my husband who I dearly love might die and leave me available to mother someone elses children!! [Eek!]
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Javert Hugo
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quote:
I had a good friend's brother pass away, and because I didn't know what to say when it happend, I erred on the side of doing too little. I still feel awful for having never brought it up or letting him or his family know I cared.
Porce, I have to say, if you really would like to say something, it's not too late. A friend of my mother's contacted me less than a year ago, and it still gave me a thrill and comfort to be reminded of how loved she was and to have sympathy almost ten years after my mom died. They haven't forgotten him, and it's probably still sad. It's actually never too late to express condolences.

Rabbit: Yeah, that's absolutely terrible. Some people are psychotic, I swear.

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pooka
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Christine: Thanks, I figured you would have heard it coming and going on the Writer's workshop, but I guess I don't really talk about it as much as I thought. He'd have been, what, 15 next month.
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Sterling
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The one I hated was "I know how you feel."

Well, pat yourself on the back. Your powers of sympathetic perception are amazing. Except that you don't know how I feel, you idiot, because you didn't have the relationship with the deceased that I did, nor are your emotional nerves raw from a recent loss. Now could you kindly set yourself to a slightly more useful task, like stuffing your face so the grieving family doesn't end up gaining twenty pounds from funeral leftovers?

(Ahem. Excuse me.)

I think the best responses are ones that let those grieving that you'll be as close or as distant, as helpful or as hands-off, as they need- and then stick to it, and wait for the cues. And as simple and trite as it may be, I don't think "I'm sorry for your loss" is ever really out of place.

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Tatiana
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One thing people tend to do is stay away because they don't know what to say or do. That's not a good option. Even the people who said awkward or gauche things were a great comfort to me when my dad died, simply because they came, they tried, they offered, their intent was good. I was actually overwhelmed by the number of people who came to my Dad's memorial service. He wasn't a sociable person, and yet people came to lend their support. It was a comfort to all of us, particularly my mom, I think.

So definitely do show up at your friend's, and perhaps take some food as well. So many people came over and visited during that time that it was extremely helpful to have food to feed them. So I was grateful for the people who brought food.

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Uprooted
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I know that when my dad died, I talked about him compulsively; for heaven's sake, I posted a landmark here about him and none of you knew me! I just wanted to talk about Dad. It's different losing an 80-year-old father than it is facing the loss of someone whose death is unexpected and tragic due to youth, but I'd offer friends the opportunity to talk if that's their therapy. If you knew this brother, write a note about something that you remember about him. Or even if you remember something your friend told you, write and say "I remember that you said such and such about him, I know he meant a lot to you."

The only comment I remember that had any negative impact on my grieving process was when I was on the phone with a woman from church who called to offer her condolences. I launched into a story about my dad's time at the hospital and how amazing he was and yadda yadda and she cut in to say "Yeah, I know, I've been keeping informed on the situation."

I thanked her for her wishes, got off the phone, and burst into tears. I felt stupid for telling the same things over and over to everyone, but mainly I wanted to yell at her "would it really hurt you to hear something you already know but I obviously need to tell again?"

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Kwea
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Just show you care, because you do, and because your friend deserves to know you do. While it won;t take away the hurt, particularily right away, it will matter in the long run.

It's one of the only things that dies...knowing that you are loved.

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Wendybird
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"Gods will" or not it still sucks! Sometimes people just want to know you think it really sucks too. Be sincere and just say I'm so sorry. Take your friend out when you get into town or just take over some comfort food and sit together. Then call and write over the next few months - just be there as much as you can.
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jeniwren
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Personally, when my sister in law died suddenly earlier this year, the thing that touched me the most was the near seemless appearance of a whole host of people to take care of serving food at the memorial service. I still don't know how they arranged it all so quickly. But I won't ever forget the dozens of cards we got, and the food people brought, and the kind words people offered.

The hardest thing for my mother in law was the numerous requests for details about Mel's death. And honestly, that did surprise me. While I can understand genuine curiosity, and wanting to know, it was a little nosy to ask. I was asked quite a few times, so I can only guess how many times my MiL was faced with the question. And it was hard to talk about, because it proved out that she died from a drug overdose, something that even after the autopsy results confirmed it, many of her close family and friends wanted to deny.

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Javert Hugo
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I can see that being hard. It's probably precisely because it's an unusual and particularly sad way to die that people ask. Asking other people seems like gossip, but asking the mom is a little hard. [Frown]
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enochville
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My mother passed away when I was 14-yrs-old. People would try to tell me that she was in a better place, etc, but I already believed that at the time. The only thing that really helped was for people to tell me that they love me.



You don't have to have some profound thing to say to someone when their loved one dies. Just tell them that you love them. That isn't likely to offend anyone. When you think about it the thing that hurts and what someone misses most when their loved one dies is the love they received from them. So, the best thing you can do is to give them love.

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