I know you don’t mean to avoid the hurting coworker. You didn’t intent to exclude the grieving mother in the group. The bereaved widower is not left out intentionally. It just happens. At the same time, you want to know that when you do step closer to someone in pain, that you want to do the right thing. The skills most needed for compassionate comfort are to be authentic ~ to be real and honest and to remember to ask questions for clarification and permission.
Simply Ask with Authenticity
No one knows what their grieving friend is really thinking and feeling, so why not ask? When you do, be genuine and take the time to deeply hear what they tell you. It might go like this:
“Hey Tom, I have no idea what it feels like for you right now. The thing is, I want to know and understand. Could you help me and let me know what your grief feels like today?”
Your grieving friend could answer in a variety of ways:
“Thanks for asking, I really don’t want to talk right now.”
“Are you sure you have the time?”
“I can’t find the words. It is too painful and confusing, but I can tell you this . . .”
True to Your Offer
Whatever reply they offer, accept it. Remind them that you will be available to listen when they are ready talk, and then be true to that assurance. A few days might pass or a couple of weeks. You could open the conversation by reminding your friend that he didn’t want to talk then, but you were wondering if he felt like it today. This gentle reminder, that is initiated by you, assures him you meant it when you told him that you would be here for him.
When your grieving friend does open up and begins to talk, listen without interruption. Give him your eyes. Listen with your heart. Give him your full attention so that you are NOT even thinking about how you should respond to his thoughts or story. (That’s right, you just read what I wrote. If you are thinking about your response, then you are not really listening.) This conversation is not about you. It is all about him. Be okay with his silence as he searches for vocabulary to express the inexpressible. His silence is not your cue to fill the space with your story, ideas or words. A simple touch of his hand, or an embrace around the shoulder will assure him that you care. And at that moment, knowing someone cares and is brave enough to be with him in his pain is powerful comfort.
What you Don’t Know, You Don’t Know
Even if we have experienced a loss similar to that of your friend, you don’t really know how he feels. His relationship with the deceased, his unfinished business, his personality, his previous experiences with death and grief all create our friend’s perfect storm of mourning. If you have similar experiences, the authentic response is, “Even though my mother died too, I really have no idea how this is for you. Please tell me so I can understand and be supportive for you.”
Then, when you can’t take it any longer and you know you have a piece of insight or verbal consolation, make it your goal to ask your grieving friend for permission to share an idea or suggestion before you offer. As you do this, remind yourself that you cannot and should not “fix” their grief for them. That is their work to do. Yet if you see them really suffering, ask for permission to share. It might go like this:
“Would it be okay with you if I shared what really helped me?” Keep it brief and check in with them to see if that was of any help for them.
Always ask their permission before praying. “May I pray for you right now?” Friends in grief are vulnerable and they may be very spiritually private. Asking is a polite gesture of honoring their privacy.
Being a friend to the grieving just takes a little extra thoughtfulness. Consider what would be kind and supportive for you. Then remember it is probably different for your friend. So ASK before you jump in and offer your wisdom or help. They might need something you hadn’t even thought of. Authenticity and asking are your keys to coming alongside someone with a broken heart. You can come comfortably close and be inclusive of those who are mourning. Keep it real; keep asking.