I'm so sorry for your loss.
Your friend's sister dies, and these are the polished little phrases Hallmark suggests you offer her – someone whose world has been tied up, battered and rolled off a cliff. What do you say? How can you possibly comfort her?
"The truth is no one can truly 'comfort' the survivor of a recent death," says Megen Duffy, an emergency department nurse who pens the blog "Not Nurse Ratched." Duffy has consoled strangers whose loved ones recently died in unexpected, often violent ways and concludes that, "One can merely be present, or not, according to the person's wishes."
But what does it mean to "be present?" It's a phrase used by most of this article's experts, who range from mental health professionals to funeral directors to hospice care consultants. In the first minutes and hours after a patient's death, at the hospital, Duffy shows her presence by offering to fulfill the personal needs of the surviving family. Some mourners need coffee and a telephone; some need an exhaustive run-down of the events leading up to the death; some need to see the body. Duffy is there to assist with all these tasks.
One of the next steps of the bereaved may be to contact the funeral home, which is when someone like Caleb Wilde, a sixth-generation funeral director, jumps into action. Wilde, who authors the "Confessions of a Funeral Director" blog, also stresses the importance of being "present."
"The void left by death can never be filled by another, but it sure does help to have people who are simply there for the bereaved," he says.
But how do you – a friend, brother or neighbor – be "present" as you're staring at the sympathy cards or standing around a casket? What's your role?
Experts explain that being present means being available, being open, being receptive and simply "being there," but these passive activities can seem a little ambiguous, especially when you're emotionally preoccupied.
Below, experts identify specific, concrete ways we can be present and help loved ones who are grieving.
Open a line of communication. "Immediately after the death, acknowledge the loss, either in person, by phone or in writing," says Marty Tousley, a bereavement counselor at Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix. "Let the mourner know who you are, how you became aware of the loss and that you care."
Listen more than you talk. Or as Robert Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis, says, "We need to have big ears and a small mouth when we're addressing a bereaved person." Invite your friend to talk about the deceased and how he or she died, and listen intently with genuine interest and curiosity.
If the death was sudden and unexpected, perhaps caused by an act of violence, suicide or overdose, "signal the willingness to hear the dark side," if you're both up to it, says Neimeyer, who's also the editor of "Techniques of Grief Therapy: Creative Practices for Counseling the Bereaved." While your friend may need the help of professionals if the event was traumatizing, for your part, you can offer to listen. Neimeyer suggests saying something like, "I imagine there are some really hard aspects of this. You don't have to go through that alone."
Understand that your friend may cry, and you might too. Don't hold back. "Your tears mingled with your friend's convey what words cannot," Tousley says.
Choose your words wisely. If, as Neimeyer estimates, we should be listening to the bereaved about 80 percent of the time, then what do we say during the remaining 20 percent? The fact is, "nothing we say will make the anguish of a death better, especially if it's a sudden loss," he says. Simply imagine what you'd like to hear if thrown into a similar situation. It may be as simple as, "I am so sad and shocked."
Use caution if your first inclination is to use words of optimism, as mourners, especially at the beginning, are not in a place to hear this, says Litsa Williams and Eleanor Haley, the mental health professionals behind the blog "What's Your Grief?" "If you find yourself wanting to start a sentence with 'at least' or 'you can always,' you should probably think twice," they wrote in an email interview. Bringing up the "in a better place" logic, reminding your friend that he or she can remarry or reflecting on what a long life so-and-so lived – these sentiments are "likely well-intended, but only minimize the gravity of the loss," Williams and Haley say.
Offer your help. While this is likely the best way to be present for the bereaved, it's important to be specific with your offers. Friends probably mean well when asking, "Is there anything I can do to help?" and offering, "If you need anything, call me," but these questions and phrases are awfully vague, Neimeyer says. Plus, they "require that the mourner, when he or she is most immobilized, to take initiative."
Instead, Kenneth Doka, Hospice Foundation of America's senior consultant, suggests you "find what specific needs need to be met and meet them." Offer tangible tasks you can manage for the bereaved, like say, driving him or her to the cemetery, picking up the kids from school that week or providing dinner on Thursday, Doka suggests.
An important distinction: Offer your help, but don't force it. If the bereaved wants to spend time alone, respect that wish. He may be fielding back-to-back-to-back phone calls and visitors at the exact time he's trying to make sense of a world that's likely turned upside down. Let him take a breather and remember that everyone grieves differently.
Say the deceased's name. It can sometimes seem that, while mourning, the deceased person's name becomes almost unspeakable. But continually avoiding the person's name only further erases him or her from our lives. "Use the name of the deceased," Tousley says. "This helps recall the person's presence and confirms that the person has not, and will not, be forgotten."
So, instead of, "I'm so sorry for your loss," say: "I'm so sorry for your loss of Jack."
Check in weeks and months later. "The long term is when being there for a friend or family member is especially important," Williams and Haley say. "Immediately following a loss, people are surrounded by support. A few months later, people often feel like everyone has moved on." Check in regularly, especially on birthdays and anniversaries. Neimeyer suggests marking a reminder on the calendar to call the bereaved a month after the loss.
Share memories. If you knew the deceased, share photos and stories about him or her in person, or in a note or email. ("I remember when Jack was about 10 years old and …") If you didn't know the person who died, ask to hear a story about him while you're being present and sharing lunch with the bereaved.
"These activities signal that we understand he's still emotionally part of your life," says Neimeyer, and that "his stories still deserve to be circulated."