If you knew the deceased, share photos and stories about him or her in person, or in a note or email. 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.
Check in weeks and months later.
The long term is when being there for a friend or family member is especially important. 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. Mark a reminder on the calendar to call the bereaved a month after the loss.
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. Plus, they “require that the mourner, when he or she is most immobilized, to take initiative.”
Instead, find what specific needs need to be met and meet them. Offer tangible tasks you can manage for the bereaved, like driving him or her to the cemetery, picking up the kids from school that week or providing dinner on Thursday.
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.
Choose your words wisely.
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. 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. If you find yourself wanting to start a sentence with ‘at least’ or ‘you can always,’ you should probably think twice. 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.
Listen more than you talk.
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. 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.
Open a line of communication.
“Immediately after the death, acknowledge the loss, either in person, by phone or in writing. Let the mourner know who you are, how you became aware of the loss and that you care.”