Even for the seasoned mourner, it is hard to know what to say or do when someone close to us has lost a loved one. Often, we resort to using trite platitudes like, “She is in a better place,” because this is what we have been taught, this is how we have been socialized to respond when someone loses a loved one. Sometimes responding this way only serves to anger the griever or makes them feel misunderstood. At times, the response grievers receive from others is far worse than someone using a trite platitude. Some people pressure grievers to “get better” far too quickly while others avoid the bereaved altogether. These people are not trying to be mean, most of the time they do not know how to deal with loss themselves. They feel helpless in the face of loss so they say something insensitive or avoid the bereaved. Unfortunately, the person dealing with the loss can end up feeling criticized when people say, “You have to try to be positive.”
Honestly, none of us can ever fully understand how a person is feeling when his or her loved one has died because we are not that person. We might be able to imagine how we would feel if our loved one died but since we are not the bereaved person we cannot fully understand.
In my opinion, a better approach is to follow the cue of the griever. Most of the time they need people to be with them in their pain, not people who are going to try to take their pain away. This is a more difficult approach because we have to be willing to “be with” whatever feelings the grieving person might express. This means that we have to be able to contain our own feelings as well as whatever feelings the other person might share.
There is no hard and fast rule for how to best respond to someone when his or her loved one dies because everyone grieves differently. As a result what might be a good response for one person could fail miserably with another. What is most important is that we listen carefully to the grieving person. We cannot, solve the problem that they are facing, we cannot bring their loved one back from the dead, however, we can provide a space within which they can express their many and sometimes conflicting thoughts and feelings. Listening to someone who is grieving serves to legitimize his or her feelings. It is healing to know both that you have been heard and that you are not alone in your pain.
Besides benefitting from a good listener, grieving people often need help (especially right after the death) with chores. They might need someone to help with food shopping, cooking, or cleaning. If it is a parent who died, the grieving spouse will also need help with child-care so that they can have time to both process their own emotions and to tend to the many things that need to be handled when someone dies. And, as Kathleen pointed out in her comment, some grieving people need someone to go out with them and to distract them from their loss for a while. These are my thoughts on this issue but I want to hear from other people. So, when you were grieving, what did you find to be most helpful?