How to Talk to A Grieving Friend in Your Thirties

Sheryl Sandberg wrote a beautiful statement today on Facebook about mourning the death of her husband. He died very suddenly in a tragic accident on a treadmill while they were on vacation in Mexico.

The statement was made after she came out of 30 days of intense mourning for him- a tradition in Judaism known as shiva. Even though it’s been 30 days, I can’t imagine her pain is anything less than fresh and intense, so I’m amazed she put out an incredible brief on Facebook so early on in her grieving process.

Sandberg’s statement is incredibly sad, but it’s also helpful as well as brave. I remember trying to talk to a friend last month whose grandmother had recently died. I didn’t want to upset her and I didn’t know what to say, so I ended up shamefully trying to avoid her until I gathered up my nerve to speak.

Even now, in my thirties, I feel like I never really know the right thing to say to a grieving friend, or relative. But there are definitely better things to say than others.

Sheryl has some great ways to approach (or not approach) this difficult subject. Here are a few:

1. Don’t tell your friend that it’s going to be okay

“A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

2. Ask your friend how he or she is doing today instead of a simple “how are you doing?”

“When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

3. You don’t have to reassure the other person in order to empathize

“When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.”

Other things to say to someone who has lost a loved one include:

– Simply addressing the situation: “I heard your _______ died. I’m so sorry”

– Be genuine: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care”

– Offer support: “Is there anything I can do for you?”

– Be willing to just sit and listen with compassion.

Things NOT to say include:

-“I know how you feel” – You can never really know how the person feels.

-“They’re in a better place now.” -You never know if the person you’re talking to believes this.

– “It’s part of God’s plan” – This can cause the person to get angry and actually say something like “What plan? I wasn’t aware of any plan.”

– “You need to get on with your life.” Grief moves at its own pace. This statement is unlikely to help anyone to actually get on with their life.

Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable and devastatingly sad yet extremely positive statement, Sheryl. I’m sorry for your loss and am extremely sad for you and your family.

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