How to Comfort a Friend Whose Closest Relative Just Died

Let your grieving friend know that if she wants to talk, you will listen.
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Death can be kind of a taboo subject. Sometimes people feel awkward talking about it, so they end up avoiding a person who has lost someone. But being there for a friend in grief is not as difficult as you might think -- and your presence can mean the world to someone suffering through a loss.

1 Help Your Friend Feel Connected

Keep your friend from feeling left out -- but don't ignore the fact that he is going through a difficult loss. Let him know what is going on and that you are thinking about him. Acknowledge his loss by not putting any pressure or expectations on him. For example, say something like, “Hey, we’re going to John’s house to hang out. I get it if you don’t want to go, but I just wanted you to know you are invited in case you feel like getting out. No pressure. Whatever you want to do is fine.”

2 Invite Your Friend to Talk

When you lose someone close to you, powerful feelings move through you like an ocean wave as you begin to understand and accept the loss. If the feelings are bottled up, this can prevent healing. So giving your friend the chance to talk about her loss if she wants to is one of the best things you can do. For example, say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you are doing. I wanted you to know I am here if you want to talk. If you don't, that's fine too -- just want you to know I'm here if you need me. I'll bring coffee.”

3 Offer Companionship, Not Solutions

When you listen to someone else’s pain, the natural instinct is to try to cheer him up or offer suggestions. But there is no fix for this problem, and trying to jolly him out of it can make him feel judged and misunderstood; just be sad with him. WebMD warns that giving advice is also not helpful. Resist the urge to say things like, "Look at the bright side." Instead, tell your friend, “I know you are going to miss her so much. All I can say is you don’t have to be alone while you are missing her; I’ll be here for you.” Even though it might feel like "just listening" is doing nothing, it is actually a powerfully healing action to witness someone else’s pain without running away.

4 Be Completely Non-Judgmental

Many young people in grief get upset about how they are feeling, because they question whether it's how they are “supposed to” feel. In addition, according to the nonprofit organization Child Bereavement UK, they may not understand what they are feeling, and it might be different from what someone close to them feels. Grief is different for everyone -- there is no right way to grieve. Give your friend a hug and tell her it’s ok. You might say, “I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to feel. But you can tell me anything and I won’t judge you.” But if she is feeling or acting suicidal, ask a trusted adult for help.

5 Live up to Your Promise to Not Judge

This would be a good time to examine your own beliefs about death. Your friend might feel and say things that challenge your comfort level. For example, maybe you feel it is wrong to say anything negative about a person who has died. But sometimes a person in grief is very angry at the person who has passed and may say negative things about him. You might be tempted to tell your friend not to say or feel those things, rather than just letting him grieve in his own way. If you are aware of your own beliefs and feelings ahead of time, it will be easier to set your reactions aside and just listen.

6 Help Your Friend Remember the Good Times

Part of grieving involves remembering the deceased. Share a happy memory of the person who passed, or, if you feel awkward or unsure, just ask if it is ok to share it. Beloved people live on in your memories and your heart if you let them.

Lisa C. DeLuca is a psychotherapist, social worker and writer. Her clinical practice focuses on teens, couples, families, men and women and the elderly. Lisa's specialties include cognitive behavioral therapy for panic disorder, family systems therapy, relationship coaching, parenting and family caregiving at the end of life. She earned a master's degree in social work from Stony Brook University and has been writing professionally since 1984.