Most of us have been in an uncomfortable position where we want to support a grieving friend, but just don’t know what to say. Often, we’ll share a story of our own experiences hoping our friend feels comforted and less alone because someone else knows how they feel. With such a common encounter, that not many know how to effectively handle, Author Celeste Headlee opened up with HuffPost in 2018, about her personal experience with a grieving friend.
Who is Celeste Headlee
Firstly, to introduce Celeste Headlee. She is a journalist, radio host, and best-selling author known internationally for her expertise on difficult topics such as racism, overworking, and women’s empowerment.
Telling of a Grieving Friend
A close friend of hers lost her father several years ago. Shortly after Celeste, “found her sitting alone on a bench outside our workplace, not moving, just staring at the horizon. She was absolutely distraught, and I didn’t know what to say to her.” Celeste did what she thought was best for her grieving friend and shared an anecdote from her own life. “So, I started talking about how I grew up without a father. I told her that my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was only 9 months old and I’d always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I just wanted her to realize that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and could understand how she felt,” she explained.
Unfortunately, it had an adverse effect, and instead of feeling better, her grieving friend snapped at her, stating, “Okay, Celeste, you win. You never had a dad, and I at least got to spend 30 years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset that my dad just died.” What Celeste had tried to do was let her friend know that she wasn’t alone in the grieving process, that someone understood how she was feeling.
Celeste further explained, “At that point, I still felt she misunderstood me. I thought she was in a fragile state and had lashed out at me unfairly when I was only trying to help. But the truth is, she didn’t misunderstand me at all. She understood what was happening perhaps better than I did. When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself.”
Learning from Other Experts
Most people want to empathize with those they care about, so we share our experiences. Resulting in “shifting” the focus on us rather than on our grieving friend. According to sociologist, Charles Derber, this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation is “conversational narcissism.” Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.”
Further explaining, “It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and co-workers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.”
Examples to Offer Perspective
Using Derber’s examples, Celeste compiled a list of example scenarios in which one can understand how to effectively, or ineffectively, provide comfort to their grieving friend. There are two possible responses when speaking to someone, a shift response or a supportive response. As its name implies, the first shifts focus from the grieving friend to you. For example, Mary is stressed and talking to Tim; she says “I’m so busy right now.” Tim responds with, “Me too. I’m totally overwhelmed.” In this example, Tim meant to make Mary feel less alone. Instead, he “shifted” the focus from her problem to his.
The second possible response is a ‘supportive’ response. Mary tells Tim she’s so busy and he asks, ‘Why? What do you have to get done?’ This response creates a space for Mary to share her stress openly and keeps the focus on her current problem.
After Celeste was made aware of her error and how to better comfort a grieving friend, she had another encounter with a close friend. Said friend was going through a divorce and Celeste listened intently and said very little. “At the end of our call, she said, “Thank you for your advice. You’ve really helped me work some things out.” The truth is, I hadn’t actually offered any advice; most of what I said was a version of “That sounds tough. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” She didn’t need advice or stories from me. She just needed to be heard.” Celeste shared.
Effectively Showing Support
To better understand how to comfort a grieving friend, it’s important to know that grief is defined as incredible sadness, anguish, or misery. However, it can also cause mixed emotions. Take, for example, getting a new job. It’s exciting to do something new, but it can also be scary. A pay raise or a more convenient location is always appreciated.
In contrast, there are likely elements of the old job that you’ll miss. You’re moving forward and upward in life, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel some sadness about leaving co-workers or a great boss behind. In essence, grief is a combination of conflicting emotions. So, with this understanding, how can one effectively comfort a grieving friend?
Amazingly, the solution is actually quite simple. The truth is our well-intended support can actually make things worse. More often than not, people just want to be validated. They want to know that their feelings are okay, even normal.
When a grieving friend is dealing with the loss of a loved one, they want to be able to share that love with others. They want to relive happy memories and bask in the impact their loved ones made on their hearts. Showing genuine support to a grieving friend may look like asking questions about the situation. It can also look like taking an interest in what your grieving friend is going through.
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