How Not to Be a Jerk When a Friend is Grieving

grief, grieving

Warning: I’m only a month out from loss and I’m still raw. So this post is pretty unvarnished, and maybe a little angry. That’s where I am. Please read with that understanding.

You’ve just lost a loved one. You’re in shock, reeling, and numb. Just to put one foot in front of the other is too much effort. These are the times you need friends and family around you. You know they are well meaning, but some are just a beat … off. 

My family and I are all too familiar with loss. A little more than a month ago, we lost our 15-year-old nephew and, while we were blessed with caring friends and family, there were also those who created additional stress and pain. Oh, how I pray I’m never one of the sinners, but I fear that at some point, like most of us, I have been. Some of these may sound harsh, but I believe it’s important to protect the feelings of the grieving, at nearly all costs. So, please don’t:

  1. Ask me questions about practical matters. Don’t ask me where the silverware goes, or what you should do with the food tray that just arrived. Figure it out yourself. If you know me well enough to be in my home at a time like this, I probably trust you to make the decision. I’m likely going to tell you I have no idea anyway.
  2. Place social expectations on me. I actually had someone say, on the day of the loss, that it “isn’t nice to have x lying around when you’re having people over.” What? I’m not having people over. I just lost someone dear to me. Anyone who judges my house at a time like this needs to leave. Now.
  3. Play social games. If the last words we spoke weren’t friendly, stay away. Period. This isn’t the time to mend fences.
  4. Try to sell me stuff. Really? I have to say this? I don’t care what it is — your makeup, your clothing line, or your church. This isn’t the time.
  5. Be nosy. Don’t prod me for details, or conduct your own interrogation. It’s highly unlikely that those details matter now.
  6. Gossip and speculate. Just don’t. If you don’t think that’s hurtful, you’re wrong. Trust me on this. We hear about it. How we grieve is our own business. We really don’t need your input.
  7. Be overly theological. I don’t need a lecture on God’s will, or a Bible verse, or anything other than “I’m so sorry. My prayers are with you.” This is not the time to strut your spiritual stuff. Trust me, if I remember anything you say, it’ll be a straight-up miracle. Exception: If you’re a minister that I know and respect, you’re exempt from this, but you probably know not to do this crap anyway.
  8. Expect a thank-you note. This is an absolutely awful expectation. If you expect a thank-you note for bringing me dinner when I’m devastated, please keep your damn casserole. I’d rather accept help from those who expect nothing. Our society (especially the South) needs to put an end to this. Bring your casserole and put a note on it that says, “Don’t write me a note.” If that bugs you, it’s a sure sign that your heart isn’t in the right place.

We’re all warmly grateful to the saints who kept our kitchen organized, brought and prepared food, kept us stocked with paper products, snacks, and easy pickup foods, and gave us hugs, cried with us, and protected us when we needed it. Rather than caring about social appearances, their priorities were to serve and comfort us.

Pray for us. Tell us a funny story or memory about our family member. Share a photo we may not have seen. There are no words, but “I’m so sorry,” does nicely.

P.S. Please add your own “Don’ts” in the comments. I’d love to know your stories.

14 Responses

  1. My favorite is…”well they are in a better place.”
    Pardon me for saying this but I am selfish I would prefer my loved ones be here with me.
    Last but certainly not least ” everything happens for a reason.” Really??? I don’t even have an explanation for that one.
    Know that we think of you and your family Beth… Continued prayers.

    1. Oh, both of those suck. Bad. I’m selfish, too! We’re thinking of you too, Kristi and your dear family. Prayers for all!

  2. My relationship with my mother was complicated. When I told my psychiatrist that she had passed, her comment was “well, at least you don’t have to deal with her anymore.”
    Needless to say I fired her.

  3. This is so spot on. In my grief, I couldn’t believe how many people said “At least….” No. Don’t. Not helpful. The Circle of Grief Theory provides a good framework for folks not sure what to say/do. Hugs to your family.

  4. Beth, you have expressed these thoughts beautifully. Thank you. I hope those who need this information will take time to read your comments. I think of you and your family and send my continuing love and sympathy.

  5. Don’t #9 – Compare my loss with one you’ve been through. When a loved one dies, your relationship with that person is suddenly gone. And since every relationship is different, it follows that every grief is different.

      1. Beth,
        The year I was 42 I lost both parents, two aunts, and a good friend in a span of 8 months. That’s not to compare my grief to yours, I tell you that so you understand what I mean when I say I had a “dark year”. Fortunately I got some good counseling during that time, and I learned two important lessons. The first was the “every relationship is different, so every grief is different” thing. The other was this – people who love you want to help but they often don’t know how, so don’t be afraid to tell them what you need. Sometimes I would call one or two friends and say “I need to talk about my family”. And sometimes I would email a group of friends and say “let’s have a drink and talk about anything *except* my family”. No one ever turned me down. This may not work as well for you, I think your close circle revolves around your family and they’re all grieving too, but maybe you can find some way to use the advice. Or ignore it, you have to figure out what works for you. Just know that my heart aches for you and your family, any loss is difficult but losing someone so young seems like too much to bear.

        1. Thank you so much for that. You’re right when you say each loss is different; and it’s different for different people. And that is one dark year – I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

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