Condolence notes and casseroles: How to help friends in mourning.

A study of bereavement.
Aug. 4 2011 7:30 AM

How To Help Friends in Mourning

Condolence notes? Casseroles? What our grief survey revealed.

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The survey results also suggested that it's important to be concrete when you offer help. A number of people commented on how unhelpful they found the vague statement "Let me know if I can do anything." As one respondent put it, "I don't have the energy to call you. I'd rather you suggest something then come over and do it. One friend talked so much at the wake about how much she was going to help me, then didn't call for 3 months. When I asked her about it, she said, 'Well, he's still dead, so I didn't think there was anything I can do.' " This insensitive comment about being "still dead" brings up an important point—supporting someone in grief is not about "fixing the problem" but about simply sitting with the pain of the loss and acknowledging that the dead are indeed still dead. Helping does not require heroic efforts: One respondent mentioned an invitation to dinner or the movies; another, a phone call saying a friend was going to bring over a meal or look after their kids or help them clean their house. Of course, as mourners noted, there were times when they weren't up for any of this—and what they wanted was friends who could understand that that was fine too. Sometimes the bereaved just need to rest. Crucially, continuing to call and be present after the first few weeks or months after a loss is also important. The first months after a death are often accompanied by feelings of shock and numbness; for many, the hardest pain comes long after everyone has stopped calling or coming around.

The most important thing the survey found, though, was that grievers wanted recognition. (See our last article for more on this subject.) A death, after all, is not a problem; its pain cannot be hurried through, or tackled. Instead of stressing that one day the mourner would "get over it," helpful friends—according to our respondents—shared stories about the deceased, or just sat and held their hand while they cried. As one respondent wrote, the most helpful thing was simply the willingness or "ability [of others] to listen and accept my feelings, thoughts, memories—whether they brought tears, laughter, questioning—without responding with advice or redirection."

Make a point of knowing the bereaved person's "death dates," which include anniversaries of death, birthdays, and holidays like Mother's Day, Father's Day, or religious days. These death dates are often difficult for grieving people and can make it feel as if the death just occurred. ("The anniversary of his death has always been very hard," one respondent said of their loss.) Simply saying, "I know this must be a hard day for you" is a way to show that you care for the person who is grieving and that you are thinking about them. Another respondent noted, "A very close friend's mother died the same time mine did and we strongly supported each other. We go out to dinner at each year's anniversary for a 'mom dinner' and talk about our moms and how we've progressed coping with the loss."

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At the end of the survey, we asked mourners to address the complex question of whether the loss had taught them more about themselves—whether anything positive could be said to have come out of the experience. Many of the answers fell on both ends of the spectrum. Some said they would never find anything positive in it. As one person put it, "I think it has made me more scared, more sad, more nostalgic for the past. It's been very difficult to move on successfully from the loss of someone who was so important to me, yet whom I didn't understand very well."

On the other of the spectrum, some respondents felt that having suffered a loss had made them more empathetic and gave them a better sense of their own ability to survive. "I learned a lot from it. I saw firsthand how my family pulls together and how lucky I am to have them," one wrote. Of course, even those who found a silver lining in loss were eloquently ambivalent. "I am stronger than I ever thought I could be," as one respondent put it, "and I am also weaker than I thought I was."

While most mourners are resilient and will "bounce back" (as it is often put, rather crudely) the alterations of loss are subtly stitched through one's ongoing life. "The one thing that I learned is that you never stop missing those that you love and who have died," one survey-taker wrote. Would any of us want it to be different? Loss is the flip side of love, in so many ways. Judging by the response to the survey, the silencing of grief in American culture feels to many mourners like a silencing of love.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

Dr. Leeat Granek is a critical health psychologist and researcher who studies grief and loss.