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10 Ways to Help a Grieving Friend

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Keys to Happiness, an anthology of articles published in 1954.

“How to Help Someone in Sorrow” 

By Howard Whitman

Most of us want to be helpful when grief strikes a friend, but often we don’t know how. We may end up doing nothing because we don’t know the right — and helpful — things to say and do. Because that was my own experience recently, I resolved to gather pointers which might be useful to others as well as myself.

Ministers, priests, and rabbis deal with such situations every day. I went to scores of them, of all faiths, in all parts of the country.

[amazon asin=0743266293&template=*lrc ad (left)]Here are some specific suggestions they made:

1. Don’t try to “buck them up.” This surprised me when the Rev. Arthur E. Wilson of Providence, RI mentioned it. But the others concurred. It only makes your friend feel worse when you say, “Come now, buck up. Don’t take it so hard.”

A man who has lost his wife must take it hard (if he loved her). “Bucking him up” sounds as though you are minimizing his loss. But the honest attitude, “Yes, it’s tough, and I sure know it is,” makes your friend feel free to express grief and recover from it. The “don’t take it so hard” approach deprives him of the natural emotion of grief.

2. Don’t try to divert them. Rabbi Martin B. Ryback of Norwalk, Conn., pointed out that many people making condolence calls purposely veer away from the subject. They make small talk about football, fishing, the weather — anything but the reason for their visit.[amazon asin=1569246904&template=*lrc ad (right)]

The rabbi calls this “trying to camouflage death.” The task of the mourner, difficult as it is, is to face the fact of death, and go on from there. “It would be far better,” Rabbi Ryback suggested, “to sit silently and say nothing than to make obvious attempts to distract. The sorrowing friend sees through the effort to divert him. When the visitor leaves, reality hits him all the harder.”

3. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has passed awayWell-intentioned friends often shy away from mentioning the deceased. The implication is that the whole thing is too terrible to mention.

“The helpful thing,” advised Rabbi Henry E. Kagan of Mount Vernon, N.Y., “is to talk about the person as you knew him in the fullness of life, to recreate a living picture to replace the picture of death.”

[amazon asin=0684846314&template=*lrc ad (left)]Once Rabbi Kagan called on a woman who had lost her brother. “I didn’t know your brother too well,” he said. “Tell me about him.” The woman started talking and they discussed her brother for an hour. Afterward she said, “I feel relieved now for the first time since he died.”

4. Don’t be afraid of causing tears. When a good friend of mine lost a child I said something which made his eyes fill up. “I put my foot in it,” I said, in relating the incident to the Rev. D. Russell Hetsler of Brazil, Ind. “No, you didn’t,” he replied. “You helped your friend to express grief in a normal, healthy way. That is far better than to stifle grief when friends are present, only to have it descend more crushingly when one is all alone.”

Fear of causing tears, probably more than anything else, makes people stiff and ineffective. Visiting a friend who has lost his wife, they may be about to mention a ride in the country when they remember the man’s wife used to love rides in the country. They don’t dare speak of peonies because they were her favorite flower. So they freeze up.

“They really are depriving their friend of probably the greatest help they could give him,” Pastor Hetsler commented. “That is, to help him experience grief in a normal way and get over it.” Medical and psychological studies [amazon asin=0684839385&template=*lrc ad (right)]back up the pastor’s contention that expressing grief is good and repressing it is bad. “If a comment of yours brings tears,” he concluded, “remember — they are healthy tears.”

5. Let them talk. “Sorrowing people need to talk,” explained the Rev. Vern Swartsfager of San Francisco. “Friends worry about their ability to say the right things. They ought to be worrying about their ability to listen.

If the warmth of your presence can get your friend to start talking, keep quiet and listen — even though he repeats the same things a dozen times. He is not telling you news but expressing feelings that need repetition. Pastor Swartsfager suggested a measuring stick for the success of your visit: “If your friend said a hundred words to your one, you’ve helped a lot.”

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