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.

Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

  This article is one of a series about grief. Click here to read our original articles on grief and to look at the accompanying survey. Click here to read Meghan O'Rourke's series on grief, which became the book The Long Goodbye.

What is grief really like? Earlier this spring, we posted a survey on Slate asking this question. Struck by how poorly our culture seems to understand the complexities of grief (each of us had lost our mothers to cancer and had written about the experience), we wanted to hear from readers about the lived reality of loss. As we noted in our first article about the survey's results, we had an astonishing number of responses—nearly 8,000 in total. In our last piece, we offered an overview of the data our respondents provided about symptoms and duration of grief. In this installment, we look at what our respondents said about interacting with others as they mourned: what helped them and what made their grief more difficult. Taken together, these responses may offer some guidance for people who want to console and help friends in mourning.

The most surprising aspect of the results is how basic the expressed needs were, and yet how profoundly unmet many of these needs went. Asked what would have helped them with their grief, the survey-takers talked again and again about acknowledgement of their grief. They wanted recognition of their loss and its uniqueness; they wanted help with practical matters; they wanted active emotional support. What they didn't want was to be offered false comfort in the form of empty platitudes. Acknowledgement, love, a receptive ear, help with the cooking, company—these were the basic supports that mourning rituals once provided; even if we've never experienced a loss ourselves, we know from literature and history that people require them. Yet as American culture has become divorced from death and dying, we no longer know how to address the most rudimentary aspects of another's loss—what to say, when to say it, how to say it. Disconcerted by discomfort, friends or colleagues are all too likely to disappear or turn the conversation to small talk in the aftermath of a loss, not knowing what to say. Our survey-takers reported wanting to grieve communally and yearning to find ways to relate to those around them.

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They are not the only ones yearning. "What should I say to my friend?" more than one person has asked each of us, about talking to grievers. Everyone fears putting a foot in his mouth, because in a world without scripted rituals to guide us, there is no "right answer": What comforts one person sometimes pains another. But what the survey reflected was that mourners want their loss to be recognized and reflected back at them.

And so mourners were sensitive to anything that seemed to minimize their grief. Platitudes offering false comfort were seen as unsupportive, and even hurtful. Saying the loved one was "in heaven" or that it was "a blessing" that they were "out of pain" was not helpful; nor was saying, "I know how you feel" or "It's all for the best" or "Time heals all wounds" or "It was God's Plan." No one wanted to hear these things, especially right after someone they loved and cared about had died. Instead, one wrote, "It helped me when people acknowledged—even nonverbally/tacitly—that I was grieving. Their acknowledgment meant (to me) that they knew I wasn't 'normal' and they weren't going to hold me to my usual standard. It felt unhelpful/unsupportive when people expected me to act like everything was normal (or seemed to expect that), since I did not feel like myself and didn't have the energy for the activities and conversations that were the norm before my mom died."

Saying "I'm so sorry for your loss" was considered helpful by many, but at least one respondent objected to that phrase, especially when used in a rote way—a reminder that many mourners are looking for recognition of the unfillable hole in their lives, rather than for routine sympathy.

Many respondents felt that rituals that brought people to collectively mourn together—i.e., wakes, burials, shivas—had been deeply helpful to them. This finding underscored the importance of such events (and reminded us how important it is for friends and colleagues to make the effort to attend). Asked about whether rituals had felt meaningful, and if so, which ones, one respondent wrote, "Memorial service. I had the funeral home give me a small box of ashes and we planted a tree in our yard and I included the ashes." Another said, "We had a 'roast' for my cremated husband a few days after he died. A few months later, I scattered his ashes with friends. His soccer team planted a tree in his honor. I started a soccer tournament in his name."

Even when those surveyed found some kind of solace in rituals, returning to everyday life often proved difficult. What was most helpful? Mourners reported feeling that there is a sharp dividing line between those in the "grief club" and those who are not. One thing that's worth doing, even if you are not in the "grief club," is getting in touch and acknowledging the death. Many of our respondents noted how painful it was when friends or colleagues failed to send a card or make a phone call. "I'm sure they were uncomfortable and didn't know what to say," one respondent wrote, "but it felt to me like they didn't comprehend the extent of my grief and they were trying to just rub it out and move on."

Many people focused on the painful fact that loved ones often ignored their pain or were uncomfortable with it. Discomfort sometimes led to awkward encounters: As one respondent noted, "At my husband's wake my sister actually said to me 'Why do bad things keep happening to me?' after her car broke down." And those who had dealt with serious illness of loved ones noted how hurtful it was when friends or partners refused to acknowledge that death might be the outcome.

The respondents also spoke of the wisdom of following the lead of the mourner. There is a right and a wrong time to express condolences to someone who is grieving. We've both had experiences like this—and so had many of our respondents. "It's difficult when people bring up the loss at totally inappropriate times, like when I'm out on a Saturday night and someone comes up to me and says, "I didn't know that your mom killed herself," and proceeds to talk about it for 20 minutes despite my efforts to change the subject." Two months after Leeat's mother died, she ran into a colleague in the hall as she was about to give a lecture. She had her hand on the door when the woman began to apologize profusely for not coming to the funeral. "She started to ask me how I was doing, how could she help. This was the worst possible time she could have asked me these questions. She was bringing up a lot of pain and suffering for me at a moment when I needed to be focused," Leeat notes. The way to help someone grieving is as much about context as it is about content. Being sensitive to where you are and what the grieving person needs in the moment is paramount.

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."

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.

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