We’ve all experienced loss in some form or another. However, much of the time, we don’t consider the significance of loss, unless a family member has died. In my work as a therapist, I’ve found that we experience many losses throughout our lives. This can include the loss of a job, a pet, or a friendship as well as illness, the death of a loved one, or divorce. Most losses will change us, and if we’re willing, these occurrences and their accompanying grief and mourning have the power to draw us closer to the Lord and to one another.
Unfortunately, our society isn’t very well equipped for loss and the grief that attends it. More than anything, those who grieve need their experiences and emotions to be seen. They need an engaged witness—someone who can sit with them in their sorrow, giving them room to heal. For many of us, this is a task for which we often feel ill-equipped.
If we want to follow the Savior’s mandate to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort (see Mosiah 18:9–10), we don’t have to stay ill-equipped. We can ask for the Lord’s guidance while also turning to the information already made available, starting with the Church’s website.
We can also learn more about grief illiteracy—the lack of knowing how to help others who grieve—and take to heart the behaviors that counter it. These seven tips offer some ways to overcome grief illiteracy as you help someone through grief and the mourning process.
1. Don’t ignore their loss.
Grief is often uncharted territory in a friendship. Sometimes, when we feel helpless or uncertain in the face of someone’s loss, we’ll pretend it hasn’t happened. We may talk about the weather or other surface topics to avoid our own discomfort. But this behavior only further isolates the individual who has suffered a loss. After losing a loved one or going through a divorce, an individual’s world irrevocably changes, and when we don’t acknowledge that change, they can feel as if they’re invisible, that they don’t matter, or that their loss isn’t important. This is one reason grief needs to be witnessed. It helps the one grieving feel seen and know that they’re important enough to be acknowledged.
Do this instead. Reach out. Acknowledge someone’s loss. Mourning is the outward expression of grief, and when we help others mourn, we are on the Savior’s errand. Even small efforts make a difference, such as sending a card in the mail or making a short phone call.
After my mother died, I stayed housebound for over two weeks. I didn’t feel capable of even taking a walk around the block. It was during those two weeks that I received a call from a bishopric counselor telling me he was sorry to hear about my mother’s passing. I’m not sure how he heard about the loss of my mother, but that short phone call made all the difference. His acknowledgment of my loss helped bring me back to my daily life. In 1992, then-Elder Russell M. Nelson stated that “mourning is one of the deepest expressions of pure love.” When we help others mourn, we’re sharing in that love.
If the relationship you have with the one grieving is close, and you’re not sure how to proceed, it’s OK to admit that you want to help but you’re not sure how. This kind of admission can be such a relief to both you and the one experiencing grief. Statements such as “I want to help, but I’m afraid of offending you,” or “I want to be there for you, but I’m not sure what to do” can remove some of the pressure and help you and your friend walk the path of grief honestly.
2. Don’t say that you know how they feel.
Grief is both a universal and personal journey, so even though there may be similarities between you and your friend’s experience, each loss is unique. How we grieve our loss will be informed by many factors, including the circumstances surrounding the loss, our personality, and our relationship with the loved one. For example, someone who lost their spouse to cancer will have a different experience than someone who lost their spouse to a sudden heart attack. Both losses are different from someone who lost their loved one in a car accident or through divorce. Even if you have experienced a similar loss to someone else’s, there will be many details that will be singular to their unique situation. No two roads will be exactly alike.
Do this instead. Ask the grieving individual how they feel. This gives the signal that you’re available to listen while offering you the opportunity to practice active listening and participation. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Elder Marvin J. Ashton stated, “The time to listen is the time when our interest and love are vital to the one who seeks our ear, our heart, our help, and our empathy.” Listening is not passive. It’s an action, requiring us to be emotionally engaged.
If you’re willing to truly listen, be prepared. It’s possible that you may hear some hard and painful things. If it’s too difficult for you, or if something in the conversation triggers you, it’s OK to kindly and simply state your truth and relay your feelings using “I” statements. “I’m having a hard time hearing all of this” or “This breaks my heart” are good places to start if you find yourself listening to difficult things. Don’t make your feelings their problem by telling them they need to keep their experiences to themselves or that they shouldn’t say certain things. It’s better to own the difficulty of what you’re hearing and feeling. This admission can help reset the conversation as you both work together through this journey. But first, do your best to be emotionally available for their pain without inserting yourself into the mix.
Along this same line, make sure you’re practicing good self-care. Being present with someone who is working through grief can be fatiguing, and sometimes in our effort to help, we can overextend ourselves. Because of everything we’re all experiencing during the pandemic, it’s easy to run into compassion fatigue. To avoid burnout, it’s important to make time for yourself to recharge. Plan ahead so you already have what you need in place.
3. Don’t start a sentence with “Well, at least…”
Those who have lost a spouse to death or divorce are often told, “At least you have your children,” while those who have lost a child are often told, “Well, at least you have your other kids and your spouse.” As beautiful as these blessings may be, for those who are suffering from loss, they will never take the place of the one who is missing.
Do this instead. For those who are suffering from the death of a someone they love, affirm their relationship with the one who has passed away. The scriptures teach that we’re to “live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for loss of them that die” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45). Phrases such as “I’m so sorry. You must miss her” can help you join the grieving individual in both their grief and their love for the person who has died. Also, don’t be afraid of talking about the one who has died in casual conversation. Often, those who’ve lost a loved one enjoy hearing the name of the individual who’s died. It tells them that the one they miss hasn’t been forgotten.
For someone suffering from divorce, it helps to remember that something has literally died—a family is no longer the same and a marriage has passed away. Every single vision of their future is now altered. It helps to approach someone who’s gone through a divorce with empathy. Often, newly single individuals tell me that they lost most of their friends after the divorce. So not only do they lose their spouse, but they also lose their circle of friends and half of their family through the loss of in-laws. Sometimes, a divorce also means they’ve had to move from a beloved home, ward, or neighborhood, compounding their feelings of disorientation and loss. Simply acknowledging their situation with “I’m so sorry,” “I’m thinking of you,” or “You didn’t deserve this” can open the door to offering greater help. At the very least, when we acknowledge their experience, we’re giving the one suffering from divorce a soft place to land.
Remember, when it comes to grief, your gentle efforts can’t make someone feel sad; the heartbreak and melancholy are already there. If they cry or become sorrowful while talking with you, you’re not creating a new emotion; you’re giving them the opportunity to express those feelings that already live inside them.
4. Don’t take things personally.
When someone is grieving, their feelings are raw. It’s possible for them to be low on tolerance. They can be irritable, snappish, or thoughtless or cry easily. They may make plans and then cancel at the last minute. Let it go, especially in the beginning.
Do this instead. Be merciful and choose not to be offended. In His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord specifically mentions mercy (see Matthew 5:7). Often, when we think of mercy, we think of offering forgiveness. But mercy is a broad umbrella that also includes love, empathy, and compassion under all sorts of circumstances. So offer your grieving friend mercy.
If at some point you feel the grieving person’s behavior is stretching your ability to be available or threatening to ruin a friendship, gently talk about it with them without being accusatory. Showing mercy doesn’t mean you can’t express your feelings. Instead, when it comes to your grieving friend, it requires you to do so with love and tenderness.
► You may also like: 10 ideas from a Latter-day Saint therapist to help you through the grieving process
5. Don’t make it about you.
Sometimes, in our effort to connect, we may feel like telling our own story of loss or the story of someone we know. But unless the grieving person asks, this doesn’t really help. It can shut down someone who is grieving as they now feel the shift from their experience to yours.
Do this instead. Work on channeling your effort to connect through being present and allowing the conversation to unfold. Alma taught that we are to have our “hearts knit together in unity and love one towards another” (Mosiah 18:21). This speaks to the necessity of connecting heart-to-heart, and when someone is grieving, this is exactly what they need. Being real and tender as the moment presents itself has the power to bring us closer to one another.
6. Avoid trite phrases.
In a recent Face to Face broadcast, Elder Bednar was asked a question by a young husband who had lost his wife to cancer. In Elder Bednar’s effort to offer comfort, he honestly stated that the last thing he wanted to do was “give off-the-shelf, trite answers.” This is great advice for all of us!
Much of the time, especially when someone has died young, we don’t have a good earthly answer as to why. We simply don’t know why any individual is called back to heaven at the time of their death. This requires us, as the one who is trying to offer empathy, to learn to become comfortable with the unknown, which is a huge task. Humans hate ambiguity. We’re hardwired for surety and routine. Grief and loss can tear at the very fabric that holds us together by making everything feel fragile and uncertain. But when we can sit with someone’s uncertainty without giving them a meaningless platitude, we’re drawing from a deeper well of faith.
Do this instead. Share a memory. The grieving individual doesn’t always know every story about the person who’s died. I’ve shared unknown stories with individuals who lost loved ones, and they enjoy hearing something new about the one they are missing. It adds dimension to their own memories and gives them something fresh to think about and appreciate when they consider their loved one. If they’re already familiar with the story you’re telling, it can help them relive a funny event or a tender moment that they can now share with you, helping them feel better connected to you and to the one who’s died.
7. Don’t offer unwanted advice or tell a grieving person what they need.
We may think a grieving loved one needs to go to church or attend the temple more often. Perhaps we think they should try to have another baby, consider group therapy, go on a vacation, start dating, or try a myriad of other things. But our well-meaning guidance can give the message to our grieving friend or family member that they are somehow broken and incapable of figuring out their own needs. Grieving individuals are not broken. Even if they don’t feel whole, they’re not in need of fixing, and most of the time their grief is not unhealthy. Our effort to offer advice is often based in our own discomfort or feelings of helplessness.
Do this instead. Consider your reasons for wanting to offer advice. Start by asking yourself what makes you want to share this information. Have you had a grief experience and feel that what you have to offer would be beneficial? Are you tapping into your empathy, or does the idea of providing advice help you by making you feel helpful instead of helpless? If you’re aware of something you believe may be applicable, ask if you can share. If they say yes, then share your thoughts with the understanding that your love and friendship will not diminish if they don’t take your advice.
Being a part of another’s grief journey is hard work. It requires us to sit with our own discomfort around difficult emotions such as pain, anger, and the fear of uncertainty. It brings the fragility of our earthly life to our front porch, and most of us would prefer to shut the door to such realities. This can make it difficult to help grieving individuals because there’s one thing they need more than anything—they need us.
They need our loving and available presence. They need us to witness both their love for the deceased and their loss. Whether they’re suffering from the death of a loved one, divorce, or some other loss, they need us to offer our true selves, which requires us to be approachable and listen to their pain. When we offer a humble desire to help, we can open the door to deepening our love and friendship for one another. And in so doing, we’re following the Savior’s mandate to “mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:8–10).