You login to Facebook and your heart sinks. There at the top of your feed is a post from a friend who’s pouring out her heart about the death of her beloved grandmother. As soon as you finish reading you comment on the post, telling her how sorry you are for her loss and offer her handy advice about how she can get through this difficult time.
It seems as if it’s the right thing to do – but a new study shows that often this kind of response does more harm than good. In the recent survey conducted by American health website WebMD over 1 000 respondents revealed when they were grieving, they found social-media posts, messages or unsolicited advice pointless, irritating and, in most, cases actively distressing.
Comments such as “everything happens for a reason”, “it could be worse” and “they’re in a better place” were indicated as being among the most loathed platitudes dispensed by friends and acquaintances.
So how should you respond when someone you care about is in mourning?
You can’t just ignore her loss but the last thing you want is to say something that’s just going to make her feel worse. It’s human nature to want to wrap up the situation and tie it with a bow, says Dr Seth J Gillihan, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
We yearn to say something that will make the person feel better but as well-intentioned as your words of comfort are, they may not be what a friend needs to hear at that moment.
“We try to fix the person’s grief, to take it away, either by minimising it, or by trying to offer advice like, ‘This was helpful to my aunt when she lost her husband’,” Gillihan explains.
Others make the mistake of disappearing because they think the grieving person wants space or out of fear they might say the wrong thing.
“Death is final, there’s nothing you can do when someone has passed on, and because an individual feels they don’t have a solution, they often choose to stay away,” says Charity Mkone, a psychologist for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag). But it’s actually in grief that your friends and loved ones need you the most. Here’s a bit of guidance on what to say and do.
WORDS OF COMFORT
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
People often choose to break the news of a death on social media because it’s the quickest way of informing others about their loss, says Johannesburg psychologist Venise Germanos. “It also offers choice in engaging with people’s condolences when the time is right for the individual,” she adds.
In general, etiquette experts advise that if this is how the grieving person has chosen to communicate their loss then unless you know them very well, you should stick to this medium. If you send them a private message they may feel obliged to respond. If the loss is fresh, post a response to their message on social media, then give them a bit of space and reach out later.
However, if the person is a close friend then she’ll definitely want to hear from you. In this situation it’s appropriate for you contact them directly. There’s no universally appropriate thing to say, says Yoav Van der Heyden, a Cape Town psychologist.
“But keep in mind whether you’re sending a message personally to someone, or you’re sending it online in a space where people are watching, people will always judge. So be true to your own values,” he adds.
Generally it’s best to avoid tired old platitudes. Rather aim to be sincere. A post saying, “I’m so sorry. From the other posts you’ve shared about her, she sounded like such an incredible woman. Thinking of you during this sad time.”
If you actually knew your friend’s grandmother maybe you could share a favourite memory. This will be a great comfort, says etiquette expert Anna Post of the Emily Post Institute, because you’ll be helping to keep her memory alive. But avoid discussing details of her death or saying things such as, “It’s a relief she isn’t suffering anymore.” That’s for your bereaved friend to say – but only when she feels ready.
TO A COLLEAGUE
Words such as “I’m sorry for your loss,” can sound so hollow but this phrase is an effective way of acknowledging the traumatic event without getting too emotional. Van der Heyden says you should avoid laying on the sympathy too thick – the last thing you want to do is reduce your poor colleague to tears when she’s trying so hard to keep things together at work.
“Less is often more unless one has a good relationship, then more sharing may be suitable,” he says.
After the funeral of a loved one mourners often find themselves alone – where once they were deluged with offers of help, now they’re expected to pick themselves up and carry on. And it’s exactly at this time, as they return to their daily life, when they may feel at their most vulnerable. This is where other people beyond their close friendship circle can offer valuable support. Make it clear you’re available should the person need any help, whether it’s with their workload or just having someone to talk to about how they’re feeling, says Sandra Jackson, a social worker with counselling organisation Family and Marriage Society of South Africa (Famsa).
“This can be extremely helpful for someone who’s grieving and feeling alone once the formalities of laying their loved one to rest is over,” she adds. “Although they may rather seek emotional comfort outside, knowing there’s a support system at work will make them feel that their grief is acknowledged.”
SPEAKING TO A FRIEND
Mkone advises calling your friend, expressing 2sympathies and asking how they would like you to help. Sometimes people are too proud to ask for help, or are so overwhelmed they may not even know what it is that they want. In this instance, offering to look after their children to give them space to grieve may be well received, or volunteering to help with flowers or eats for the memorial service. However, Jackson adds that often the best thing you can do is being willing to sit with them in their grief and lend an ear without feeling the need to rush in with words of advice.
“While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person it’s actually more important to listen – and be present while doing so,” she says. Don’t shy away from talking about the deceased, Mkone says, but avoid imposing your views and beliefs about death.
A DISTANT FAMILY RELATIVE
Many of the rules mentioned above apply in this instance too. Try to keep it real. Jackson recommends acknowledging the situation and expressing concern by saying something such as, “I’m sorry to hear this happened to you.”
“Offer to help with specific tasks such as the funeral arrangements, food shopping, transporting children to and from school,” she says.