Flowers. Bagels. Cookies. Edible arrangements.
One might receive any or all of the above during the initial rush of support after experiencing a death in the family. Although the gesture comes from a place of care, and guests might appreciate having something to munch on during a memorial gathering, these edible sentiments are often barely processed by the primary grieving persons themselves. The initial days after a death typically feel foggy. In time, deliveries start to drop off, and the reality of the death becomes increasingly salient. People who are grieving feel more alone as time goes on so it’s important we continue to show support for them. Here’s how.
1. Check in…like, really check in.
In our society, we often greet someone with a quick and casual, “How are you?” The response is typically “fine” without further conversation. If you are asking someone who just experienced the death of someone in their life, “How are you?”, the reality is that they are likely struggling, hurting, and grieving. It can be helpful to ask someone how they are really doing and make the time to delve into their deeper feelings. We are all busy people, so set aside time after work, or on a weekend when you have the capacity to truly listen and be present.
2. Ask questions about the person who died.
Allow space for the person who is grieving to share whatever they would like. Sometimes the invitation to talk about a memory or to express their feelings allows the person to feel safe in opening up, and also stay connected to their person in ways that go beyond the circumstances of the death itself. It might be helpful to offer open-ended prompts, such as: “What were some of the things you liked to do together?” or “What are the things about your person that you find yourself missing the most?”
3. Follow the grieving person’s cues.
Let it be okay if the person doesn’t want to talk about deep feelings. You might be expecting to go over to your friend’s house to talk about that person’s grief, and it is important that you acknowledge it. But it’s also okay to talk about other things or engage in other activities, like watching a movie or a sporting event together. The important thing is that you’re following the person’s lead.
4. Open up about your own feelings.
People often start to feel uncomfortable if they are the only one sharing deep feelings. If you are able to open up authentically, it creates a deeper connection and comfort level, and provides a model for them to do the same. This might mean talking about your own experiences with grief, but that’s not the only way to connect. It’s more about being vulnerable and candid, and leading with your own emotional experience and responses to events in your own life. That said, it can be a delicate dance because you want to make sure this exchange is not just about you, but supporting the grieving person. So pay attention to how they’re responding or ask them if it’s helpful to hear.
5. Acknowledge the important calendar dates.
Be mindful of the death anniversary, the birth date of the person who has died, and Father’s/Mother’s Day, and then reach out on those dates. Make sure you’re being explicit in your acknowledgement as well: “Hey, I know your dad’s birthday is coming up and I was thinking of you and just wanted to check in. How are you feeling about it? Do you have any plans on how you’re going to spend the day?” It shows that you are aware that it might be a difficult day for them, and that you’re there for them.
6. Write a note.
Sometimes, sharing your support in person can be challenging, for either you or for the person who is grieving. Writing a heartfelt message of support can allow both of you to process the sentiments you are sharing in a more slowed down way, and your friend can come back to these concrete displays of support over time as well. You can even time your card with one of the important dates mentioned above.
7. Take the lead on planning an activity.
Instead of asking your friend if there is something they want to do, come up with an activity or plan for you to spend quality time together. It might be something that you enjoyed together in the past or something you have talked about attempting. It can be difficult for a grieving person to make decisions or have motivation to make plans. Make it easy. If they say that they are not interested in participating, make it clear that the offer will still be on the table another time.
8. Bring over dinner.
Providing a meal makes anyone’s day easier, and you can offer to stay with them and spend time together while you eat, or merely drop it off. Think about a dish that you know they will enjoy, a favorite comfort food, a meal you may have shared together in the past, something that you know will nourish them emotionally and physically. While it might feel easier to drop off a box of cookies or munchkins, consider instead bringing something healthier.
Whichever of these strategies you choose to utilize, you are giving the message that you have not forgotten about your friend, and that you don’t expect their grief to just magically vanish. They will certainly notice the people that continue to show up for them as time goes on.
Jenna Wolfson, LCSW, is the Girls Clinical Director at Experience Camps in Pennsylvania. She is a licensed clinical social worker at Wolfson Therapy with a focus on helping children, teens, and adults build skills to better cope with ongoing stressors and challenging emotions. Jenna incorporates evidence-based strategies such as CBT and DBT as well as relational client-centered frameworks into her practice, where she specializes in working with anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma.
Dr. Dan Wolfson, PsyD is the Boys Clinical Director at Experience Camps in Pennsylvania. He is a licensed clinical psychologist at Wolfson Therapy who works individually with teens and adults, guides couples and families towards strengthening their relationships, and builds communities of support for children and adults who have experienced loss.