Being there for Grieving Friends and Family: Support vs. Comfort

First and foremost, please allow me to explain what’s happening with this post. For those of you who don’t know, we’ve been doing audio podcasts for about a year now (you can check those out on iTunes).  We originally started the podcast thinking that some people might prefer listening to their grief support over reading, and the idea of doing videos sprang from the same logic. We aren’t completely stepping away from audio podcasts, we’ve simply decided to mix things up with the occasional video.  You can stay up to date with these by subscribing to our podcast or by following the What’s Your Grief YouTube Channel.

Now, here’s where I self-deprecate and ask you to forgive the fact that we’re awkward, woefully backlit, and seem to have forgotten the value of brushing our hair.  This was our first go-round and a jump-in-head-first-on-a-Saturday-afternoon kind of impulse.  We PROMISE to improve, learn, grow, and (maybe) brush our hair.  Okay, here we go.  

Being there for Grieving Friends and Family: Support vs. Comfort

Two of the most heavily trafficked articles on What’s Your Grief are What to Send Instead of Flowers and How to Write a Sympathy Card. What does this tell us?

We believe it indicates people want to be there for their grieving friends and family, but they aren’t sure how. If you don’t want to believe us, believe the research that suggests a major reason why people don’t receive helpful support after the death of a loved one is because people simply don’t know how to provide it. This experience is illustrated by Barle, Wortman, & Latack in their article Traumatic Bereavement: Basic Research and Clinical Implications:

“Bereaved people report that others frequently avoid them or make comments that are intended to be helpful, but are, in fact, deeply wounding (Dyregrov, 2003-2004). Such comments include blocking discussion of the loss or the display of feelings (e.g., “You need to be strong for your children”), minimizing the problem (e.g., “At least he’s not a vegetable”), invoking a religious or philosophical perspective (e.g., “She’s a flower in God’s garden”), giving advice (e.g., “You should not be going to the cemetery every day”), and claiming to know how the survivor feels (e.g., “I know how you feel-I lost my second cousin”; Dyregrov, 2003-2004).

This is such a sad reality when you consider that effective social support can reduce the emotional and physical toll of grief and helps people to feel loved cared for, and less alone.  So we have people who want to be helpful on one side of the street, and people who could use a little help on the other side of the street, but no one’s crossing over.  What’s the big deal?  Why can’t we figure out how to bring these two sides together?

Well, the way we see it there are two challenges:

Challenge #1:  Many times caring friends and family want the safety of knowing they are doing or saying the right thing. And who can blame them?  No one wants to be the cause of another person’s horror story or awkward moment.  In the absence of certainty, many people either panic and stick their foot in their mouth or they say nothing at all.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic solution (although we do have a resource). We can’t tell anyone precisely what to say or do, mostly due to challenge #2.

Challenge #2:  No two people grieve in exactly the same way. Different people face different challenges depending on the person who has died, secondary losses, coping style, interpersonal style, strengths, weaknesses, etc.  We can’t provide black-and-white answers; we wish we could for everyone’s sake.

What we can offer, however, is a framework to help keep you conceptualize your role as a supportive friend and/or family ember. We’ve laid this framework out before in the article, Grief Support vs. Comfort: A pro-tip for the compassionate and caring.  Basically, what it says is that before attempting to console or care for someone who is grieving, you must first repeat the following phrase to yourself in the mirror 10 times:

“I do not want to provide comfort.  

I want to provide support.” 

What the difference?  Well, comfort implies a desire to free someone from their pain and make them feel less unhappy, while support implies a desire to provide assistance and help. Over the years you’ve probably gotten good at the comfort bit (we all have), so when you approach someone who is grieving your first inclination may be to fall back on words of optimism.  You really want to take away their pain away and so you find yourself saying things that look for a silver lining and which begin with “at least”.  Platitudes, “at leasts”, and inspiring statements may be well intentioned, but they often minimize the gravity of a person’s loss and make it seem as though you either don’t care or aren’t paying attention to the reality that is standing right in front of you.

Instead of attempting to comfort the person who’s grieving, we recommend focusing on what you can do to help support them in moving forward through the pain.  Try starting with the following three steps:

 1.  Repeat:

“I do not want to provide comfort.

I want to provide support.”

2. Ask yourself:

  • What type of support is appropriate considering the closeness and/or tone of my relationship with the person who’s grieving?
  • What does my friend or family member seem to need?  Emotional support? Logistical support? Both?
  • What am I good at? What am I most capable of providing?  What unique strengths do I have that could be helpful?

3.  When all else fails:

  • Show genuine caring and compassion:
    • No one knows the perfect thing to say, so stop stressing.
    •  Focus on treating the person with caring and compassion. Sometimes this is as simple as asking how the person is doing and then actually listening to what they have to say.
  • Provide concrete assistance:
    • It’s tempting to ask the person who’s grieving to let you know what they need, but it’s far more useful to offer specific help.  
    • Consider a list of things you can do and then just go ahead and offer – they can always say no.
  • Actively listen:
    • Talking to someone who will simply listen is sometimes precisely what a person needs.  
    • You may feel like you need to provide answers, but often just having the opportunity to talk things out can help someone organize their thoughts and feelings.  
  • Be present:
    • Without hovering, be available to the griever by letting them know they can call at any time and by casually check in once in a while.
    • Follow their cues. If they don’t want to talk or if they don’t take you up on your offers, that’s okay.  
  • Remember:  
    • Grief lasts forever and people often continue to struggle for months and years after a death.  
    • Continue to check in sporadically, especially on days that might be hard like birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, milestones and special events.  This will send the message that you understand and accept their enduring pain.  
    • Don’t be afraid to remember the person who has died by saying their name and sharing memories of them.

Sometimes the best way to help people support you is to tell them what you need.  If you agree with what we’ve said in this post (and video) we encourage you to share it with those who could benefit.

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March 28, 2017

11 responses on "Being there for Grieving Friends and Family: Support vs. Comfort"

  1. A friend of mine just lost his mother. She was in a nursing home for 7 years but he was the main caretaker. They were very close. I didn’t know his mother but I knew him from school. I did make it to the viewing to show my support but was unable to attend the funeral. It has only been a week and I know he is going to have a hard time coping and needs time to grieve. He was a good son and took care of his mother. I did text him a week after his mothers death just wondering how he was and that I was thinking about him. I did tell him I’m here if you need me and that I’m keeping him and siblings in my prayers. I didn’t expect an answer but he did reply and thanked me. He said he was a broken man but a proud son. He also thanked me for reaching out with care and condolences with a picture of an arrow through a heart. My heart just ached for him. I plan on sending him a card maybe in a week just to let him know I care. Since we don’t know each other well I’m not sure what else I can do for him. I know he’s hurting and I would love to give him a hug. I know how you get after a loss like that. I just don’t want his demons to get a hold of him because he is so low right now. I think all I can do is just keep in contact with him every so often and let him know I’m always there for him. If anyone has any other suggestions, please write me.

  2. I am worried about someone grieving. Strap in, cus it’s complicated. Ok, so what had happened was:
    My ex-fiance of almost a decade (and also my bestie for that very same decade) split in 2016. We’re still friends (strained, with more baggage than a cargo hanger at Christmas… it’s complicated, we’re both semi-crazy/retarded, I don’t even understand how it works), and we seem to reach out to each other at critical times, sometimes with success, sometimes with failure, disappointment. He suffers from depression and anxiety for many years, and stress manifests self destructively with him. More so since we split. He’s been with 2 girls since, both equally unstable and self destructive, very tumultuous relationships (makes our baggage look like a walk in the park). Well, a few days ago his latest girlfriend overdosed on heroin and died at his home, in his room. They only been dating a few months, but I know how he is (intense, emotional, immersed) I’m certain that he’s totally freaking out, isolating himself, running from it, afraid to deal with it but also wallowing in his pain. I’m afraid he’s suicidal, I know how irrational and self destructive he can be, he’ll perpetuate and encourage his depressive thoughts (mostly subconsciously I think). It’s a vicious cycle he gets stuck in. Professional help basically isn’t an option (for a few reasons: access, money, family disapproval, pride and fear of stigma.. It’s just highly improbable he’d do it). All I can do is messages him through text/FB messenger.

    My point/question: what can I say in my messages that will have the most constructive and positive impact, to offer support to him, but also to remind him to not dangle too close to the edge of his depression, and encourage him not to isolate and withdraw and get stuck in his head. Without sounding like an asshole or sticking my foot in my mouth? (Take note, I’ve been known to make an ass of myself while simultaneously sticking my foot in my mouth, so that is secondary to the not committing suicide/self destruction thing).

    Help a cynical, insensitive, occasionally overbearing ex girlfriend to say the right thing to maybe give this stubborn jackass hope, show support, and help him stave off suicide.

    And……. GO. THANKS IN ADVANCE to whoever’s feeling brave!

  3. I lost my younger sister 39 years old Christmas Day 2017 and I am struggling horribly with my loss. She had a husband and three kids all under 10 years old. Her death was sudden and unexpected due to an accident. I miss her horribly. When my best friend was hardly there last year to support me, I told her how I was feeling. She told me that while my world had come to a grinding halt, she was sorry to say that hers had not and that she intended to take every opportunity that came her way. I said there was nothing wrong with taking opportunities but there is also a time when you can put something aside to support a friend when they are grieving for such a huge loss (my sister who I was extremely close to). I told her there were a few times I had needed to talk to her because I had just received news and a coroners report at that time, with details of her death that were extremely distressing to me and I needed someone to talk to and that she had not made herself available to me at any of these times. I went on to remind her of some times I had been there for her when she split up with the father of her children.
    She said that she realised now that she had been selfish and self obsessed and pushed a lot of people away that cared about her and that I should not do the same as she had done.
    I don’t understand her reaction. This is totally different to splitting up with a partner, I’ve been down that road but, my sister died, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. How do you compare that? Why does she think I am selfish to ask for some of her time outside of what is only convenient for her but not to me, which was practically hardly ever on her part. We were friends for nearly 29 years. This was a double bereavement for me and as my husband has not been overly understanding of my grief and I don’t have any of my family here, I am overwhelmed lonely, broken and have no desire for life. I don’t know what to do. My grief is overwhelming no matter how much I try to move forward into a different way of living and dealing with my grief. I have no support, no one who really cares and I am floundering. What do I do?

    • You have my absolute sympathy and I empathise with you. You are NOT alone in your very painful grief. I have lost both of my sister’s. My youngest sister was my BEST FRIEND, MY COMPANION, I thought the world of her and her death was almost sudden. My father died mid November 2015 and my youngest sister who seemed to be okay healthwise, survived him by only 8 weeks. Twelve weeks later, my mother died. My middle sister died this last Christmas 2018. Please, please don’t ever feel guilty about your friend of 29 years. Your friend is the SELFISH ONE, you are definitely NOT SELFISH. I am trying to hang on to the memories that I have of my sisters. I know, memories do not replace the bonding that we had in the flesh, but my sister’s live in ME and while I am alive, they will never die. I don’t have a magic solution to help to ease your pain, because I am still grieving and I will never recover from this grief, but I have learnt how to deal with it on a daily basis. Please remember, your friend is the selfish one not you, so please don’t feel bad about her. Please hang on to the wonderful memories of your sister.

  4. I lost my mom 8 months ago. We were great friends, we liked the same things. My mother was funny. She was strong. She lived an admirable life full of love, integrity, honor. My husband of 30 years does not want me to grieve. He has become my worst enemy, i can’t talk about my mom with him, he does not want me to cry, he has become very aggressive and does not have empathy for my pain. It just happened! I moved to another bedroom because picking on me, and belittling me all day long he wanted to have his rights. No way. I am hating him now for leaving me alone with my grief. I go to a grief support place and they have been wonderful, I have gone out with them to diners too. My friends have behaved very nice with me. But I am hollow inside, I have this sorrow deep inside, my mom took a big chunk of my heart, my dad too. I need love, I need compassion, empathy, warmth from my husband and he is not giving it to me. He told me he can’t bring my mom back. It was my mom’s time i agree but the ones she left here, how about it, don’t we deserve compassion? I am very sad, I see two losses, my mother died and my husband does not love me, otherwise why would he behave in such a way? If anyone has anything to say about my situation, please answer back. Thanks.

    • Hey Brooke, I don’t have a cure for your situation, but just wanted to let you know I am sorry to read about this. Of course you want, and need, to grieve for your Mum. It’s obvious you loved her. In my opinion you have every right to cry, if you need to. It must be very hard living with someone who doesn’t recognise your grief. But I can tell you that if you feel you are grieving and coping in a way that feels right to you, then any unhelpful comments from anyone else telling you to just stop grieving are not useful. Grief is love. It is natural. I wish you lots of strength and courage.

  5. This posting is a great resource. Can you point me towards any postings on how to handle this same situation from the perspective of being in a romantic relationship with the grieving person? My boyfriend is grieving the death of his mother from cancer, and while the information in this posting is certainly helpful, unfortunately it does not go far enough to address how to handle supporting a griever whom you’re in long-term romantic relationship with. If there’s no posting on this topic, perhaps you would consider writing one. Times are pretty challenging right now and I could really use a resource. Thank you!

    • Hi Jenn, to point you in the right direction of some of our other articles that might be helpful it would be great to know more specifically what challenges you are experiencing. There are SO many unique aspects to being in an intimate relationship with someone who is grieving and it varies very much from relationship to relationship. Having a little more context about your specific situation will help!

  6. Eleanor, I am so glad you posted here that you have a you-tube site. I personally, obviously, really like the one of you with the children because I, (as the aunt who loves and misses them the most, because I am their Grandmother’s twin) get to see and hear them. Love, love, love that. Maybe I shouldn’t say that I am the aunt that loves them the most, but I am pretty sure you, Eleanor, understand why I said it. I also love, love love what you are continuing to do with your *What’s Your Grief) site. I am sure you are blessing and helping many people.

    • Thanks Aunt Elaine! We hardly ever use the YouTube site, but I would really like to more. Also, on a personal note, I really want to get back into take more photos of the kids and of the family. Anyway, thanks for your constant support, it means a lot to me. I was just thinking of you, actually, with Mother’s Day coming up. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 10 years that Mom has been gone. I guess when you think about all that has happened in that time, it adds up….but you never miss her any less, you know? I miss you all very much.

      Eleanor

  7. Thank you for the suggestions.
    I am grateful for your work.
    I wish you didn’t feel a need to criticize yourselves.
    The video was very helpful.
    I am comforted by the details that might not have been perfect in your opinion.
    The backlighting made me feel hopeful and cheered.
    You both look lovely and have beautiful hair.
    Thank you.

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