On Grief: How to Help Friends in Mourning

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Meghan O'Rourke discusses her book on grief, The Long Goodbye, and the findings of the survey on grief that she and Leeat Granek conducted and wrote about for Slate—and takes calls from listeners on advice for grievers.

Listeners: If you've dealt with loss, tell us what you wanted from your friends and family. What were the right things to say and do and what were the wrong things? Or if you're a friend of someone mourning, do you have questions about what to say and how to help? Give us a call 212-433-WNYC or comment here!


Meghan O’Rourke

Comments [34]

Rooney from Brooklyn, NY

For the people out there who don't know what to do for a grieving friend or relative: If you haven't yet experienced the death of someone you love and/or are generally uncomfortable with the idea of death, that's okay, but at least make an effort, even if it's an imperfect one! We all know nobody's perfect -- but not saying, writing, or otherwise expressing anything at all is simply not humane. You may feel awkward or uncomfortable, yes -- but your friend or relative is in a far worse position emotionally than you are. Please show compassion in whatever way you can -- the mourner will appreciate it for what it's worth. I can relate to the caller who sadly lost friends over this; when my father passed away, certain friends, for whatever reasons, said/wrote/expressed nothing to me, and I no longer have any interest in maintaining those friendships. Finally, for more spot-on advice, listen carefully to today's callers, who each offer spot-on advice! Thanks to Brian and Meghan O'Rourke -- please do a follow-up segment on this subject soon!

Sep. 01 2011 05:25 PM
Ed from Larchmont

I think we have trouble speaking about death because people see death as the end of that person's existence. If so, what can be said? What can compensate for their non-existence, or make it OK?
But to Christians, we know that death is not the end: 'Do not fear the first death, fear the second death' Jesus tells us, the death of the soul. Death is referred to as falling asleep, 'our brother has fallen asleep', and that we mourn, but 'not as those who have no hope'.
And it has been revealed to us that at death the person appears before God and is judged in the individual judgement. The soul is immortal, and will await the resurrection of the body.
This is what Christians believe, and it's not wish fulfillment, but revealed truth. At least this might give even non-believers some hope.

Sep. 01 2011 03:30 PM
Ewunia from New Jersey

The overwhelming majority of people are so awful when dealing with their friends and family who have experienced death and prolonged illness firsthand. Next month it will be one year since my husband died. Widowhood is at times very lonely. It really hurts when mutual friends of both of ours seem to have dropped me out of the clear blue. Friends who are genuinely concerned and want to help are few and far between, and this is because most people have no idea how to deal with those who are grieving or recently experienced a loss. It is almost worse when people know your spouse has died and do not acknowledge the death at all. They say nothing, not one word!

Never assume or play God, thinking you know what is best for the grieving or ill. People should treat the ill just as they would do when the person was well. Be sure to include the couple in all plans, just as you would have done before. Widows/widowers should not be ignored either, but included. Invite the person with a guest. It it up to the invitee to go alone, with someone else, or not attend. I went to my first party alone recently, and I will not do this again. It was very depressing. I came home and cried.

Sep. 01 2011 12:43 PM
Jocelyn from Brooklyn

I think we should improve our grief rituals. Then you don't have to worry about what to say and how to react. And people dealing with grief don't have to organize cocktail parties on the day after their loved ones die.

On an aside, when I was a teenager my mother committed suicide after a tumultuous life spreading grief. It's unbelievable what people (who had been estranged from her for years) said to me in this extreme situation, like: were you close to her?

Sep. 01 2011 12:20 PM
Michael P. Gaughan from Brooklyn

I lost my mother on July 11; I lost my father on January 25, 2009 and my Aunt Elizabeth (Libby who lived with my parents) on September 11,2001 (natural causes NOT WTC RELATED). They all died of natural causes in their 80s. I miss my folks but I had them for a long time; they lived long full lives. I am comforted by this because I know friends and family members who lost parents much earlier then I. I feel a bit guilty that I am not devastated, but I am experiencing it as a cycle of life event, my time will come as well.

Sep. 01 2011 12:12 PM
Mary Grace Dembeck from Westport, CT

My daughter and her family had a remarkable experience after we suffered the loss of her 17 year old son, Tommy., in a tragic autmobile accident just two months ago

Not only did thousands if people from her wonderful town of Simsbury, CT, turn up at the wake, but the students were so awesome. They showed up at her house in droves, offering any help could, taking Tommy's younger brother and sister,who were shattered, under their wing, inviting them to pools and taking them to lunch and movies, etc. It was all so overwhelming that my daughter, a kindergarten teacher at an inner city school, was inspired to wrire a letter to the town. which was published in the Simsbury News.

Her letter was so awesome. How she got the strength to write it is beyond me. It's a letter citing the goodness of teenagers and of their parents who raised them to be so kind.

I would love to send you a copy. There's a really important message in this letter that I wish everyone who thinks they know today's teenagers, and whi feels so negative about them needs to hear.

Mary Grace Dembeck
78 North Avenue
Westrport, CT 06880
(203) 226 0326


Sep. 01 2011 12:08 PM
joanne devine from Elizabeth, NJ

The recent hurricane flooded the area where i had a lot of my son's belongings. Ian passed away almost six years ago. I have not been able to go through his things, when I try I become literally exhausted and spent for the day. People try to help me sometimes, but it is just too hard. The things that got wet will be tossed and I think I will be relieved, don't look, just bag it and toss. I need help with this. Exhaustion sets in.

Sep. 01 2011 12:08 PM

Glad to hear that Megan mentions that there is no real specific answer towards dealing with grief. My brother died 13 years ago of a brain tumor. The same year a friend of mine's dog died. She experienced a great deal of grief over the loss of her dog, but it took me some time to be able to equate the way she felt about the loss of the animal with the way I felt about the loss of my brother - however, I do feel that her grief was as profound as mine, as I know that dog was "her life." I'm not sure if she still feels her loss the same way as I do so many years later, and I am constantly reminded about the fact that my brother is no longer with us.

Sep. 01 2011 12:07 PM

My wife is Polish, when she lost her Grandmother I asked a Polish friend how I might express myself in her native language to her and to her family. In Polish you might say, "Jestem z ciebie" which is literally, "I am with you". I really love the sentiment in this, it's extremely meaningful, but understated.

Sep. 01 2011 12:03 PM
Mara from NYC

On the subject of inappropriate comments, a manager in my office had commented to me twice since my mother's death, in a joking way, that once I sell my mother's house (I was her only inheritor) I will be a millionaire. Never mind that the dollar amount is way off what the value of the house is, what I find such an affront is that this comment implies I won the lottery. I did not. I lost my mother who was not just my mother, but also my whole family, and so in one fell swoop I have been orphaned. I did not win the lottery.

Sep. 01 2011 12:02 PM

I lost my daughter (and her boyfriend) 7 years ago in an accident. I noticed there were people who waited for you to "move on" before saying anything because frankly it made them (especially other parents) uncomfortable. When sitting Shiva (the 7 days of mourning after the funeral in the Jewish religion) one of my other kid's friend came up and asked me "other than this - how is your summer going?" I just had to laugh

Sep. 01 2011 11:58 AM
Saul Trabal

My father died 9 days before the 9/11 attacks. I have a photo of him standing with my aunts, and in the distance behind them was the World Trade Center. Both faded from existence 9 days apart. I've always hated when people said grief gets "easier" to deal with over time. There is NOTHING easy about using a loved one. I prefer the term "bearable"-because that's as good as it gets.

Sep. 01 2011 11:58 AM
lizzy from east village

My brother committed suicide two years ago, this Sept 12th. The second year has been far more difficult than the first, which was pure numbness. I had many friends who were there for me, and those that were most helpful were the ones who actively checked in long after the event, and would get me to do simple things, like take a walk, get a coffee, etc. However, I was shocked by the friends who disappeared, and who even thought I maybe wasn't "snapping out it" quickly enough and getting back to my life-of-the-party self. Some friends even thought my despair was some sort of zen peacefulness, which I thought was a way of avoiding and dealing with my profound and relentless depression and sadness. It is hard to be around grief-- I have experienced this first hand. But it is always those you would never expect who rise up and become that hero friend, who continue to be there and lend a hand of support, and who's capacity for looking past the pain of the grieving and coax the healing out little by little is endless.

Sep. 01 2011 11:58 AM
Shelley from Prairie Du Chien, WI

I want to echo the radio comment concerning not offering sympathy by saying that you too have experienced the loss of loved one. Doing so is extraordinarily self-indulgent and dismissive. The individual experiencing the loss needs to have their specific loss and grief acknowledged as a unique (to them) and personal loss. Their feelings, and their feelings only need to be the priority.

Sep. 01 2011 11:57 AM
William from Manhattan

Are we asking too much from those around us, when we are so prickly about how people try to offer their condolences? None of us is perfect, we sometimes stumble in our attempts to be social animals. Maybe a time of grief is also a time to feel compassion for other people who are not in our situation.

Sep. 01 2011 11:57 AM
PG from FH

I'm 41 and by the time I was 26 I'd loss my dad (I was 13), my mom (I was 19) and my eldest brother (I was 26). The worse thing anyone could say to me was "God needed them" or "they're in a better place";anything along those lines is not the right thing to say. I was still in college when my brother died, the person I found most comfort in was my dearest friend (we're still friends all these years later). She was quiet and listened, passed me Kleenexes when I need them. She'd come over every day, just to make sure I'd eaten or just to watch TV. She and I are very close even though I moved to New York and she stayed in Florida.

Sep. 01 2011 11:57 AM
Jocelyn from Brooklyn

I think we should improve our grief rituals. Then you don't have to worry about what to say and how to react. And people dealing with grief don't have to organize cocktail parties on the day after their loved ones die.

On an aside, when I was a teenager my mother committed suicide after a tumultuous life spreading grief. It's unbelievable what people (who had been estranged from her for years) said to me in this extreme situation, like: were you close to her?

Sep. 01 2011 11:54 AM
Tere from west village

This is a time when presence trumps language. We need to value this and let go of a need to resolve things through language.

Sep. 01 2011 11:53 AM
Mara from NYC

My mother died 3 years ago, and my office, which usually celebrates everything, sometimes more than once (we had 2 pre-wedding showers for one person) and yet, when my mother died, they never even gave me a card. And yes, you can be sure that I remember this 36 months since then.

Sep. 01 2011 11:53 AM
christen from brooklyn

When I lost my grandfather I felt like I had stepped off the world. It was amazing that others could go about life as usual. When I hear of others grieving, I welcome them back to the spinning world whenever they are ready.

Sep. 01 2011 11:52 AM
Brenda Varrasso

When my husband's father died 10 years ago, one of the few comments that stood out to him and he was grateful for was when the priest that married us said, "Michael, I don't know what to tell you. This f**cking sucks, this really f**cking sucks." He felt like it was one of the few comments where someone kinda knew what was going on for him.

Sep. 01 2011 11:51 AM
Jane from Brooklyn

there is a lot of pressure in US to move on, to hold yourself together, to not display anything. It is normal to feel sad, it is a process, and has be allowed to happen

Sep. 01 2011 11:51 AM
MP from Brooklyn

My best advice - say little - just LISTEN!

Sep. 01 2011 11:49 AM
Bob from NYC

there is no one grieving fits all. everybody grieves at their own way their own paste. the worst thing to do there is to create "grieving - for dummies" type of therapy/suggestions.

Sep. 01 2011 11:47 AM
Karen from NYC

I kind of disagree with the guest, because what helped me a lot when my mother died was a distant cousin, who had lost her mother the prior year, telling me that the grieving process should be taken one day at a time and that, as bad as I felt today, eventually I would feel better and remember my mother as she had been prior to her final illness: "You'll get her back," she said.

My cousin knew exactly what I was feeling; she'd been there -- and that helped.

Sep. 01 2011 11:47 AM
Suzanna from Usually Sunset Park, Brooklyn

My father died 10 years ago, shortly before 9/11. We brought him home to Ireland for his final last weeks, and friends who called me there afterwards, had a lot of small talk: what's going on? Puffy changed his name again.
And, I hated all the trite sayings mentioned already.

Sep. 01 2011 11:46 AM
Suzanna from Usually Sunset Park, Brooklyn

My father died 10 years ago, shortly before 9/11. We brought him home to Ireland for his final last weeks, and friends who called me there afterwards, had a lot of small talk: what's going on? Puffy changed his name again.
And, I hated all the trite sayings mentioned already.

Sep. 01 2011 11:45 AM

to be left alone. dont cheer me up. dont discuss it. wjen around me just listen. offer zero advice.

grief is individual. pain is real.

Sep. 01 2011 11:44 AM

Thanks for this. Very helpful discussion.

Sep. 01 2011 11:08 AM
D from Brooklyn

Sorry to post twice, but thank you JMurphy. It's true. People comfort you for a month or so and then forget it happened while it is still in the forefront of your mind for a long time. I totally agree with what JMurphy said. You are not upsetting the person. The person is already upset.

Remember to continue to ask how the person is doing especially for the 1-2 years and ESPECIALLY remember the first anniversary.

At the first anniversary, I felt like I'd been taken back to square one. A friend of mine sent me an email saying he remembered what day it was and it meant so much to me.

We were also lucky because we had a gathering commemorating the first anniversary with friends/family. My family is not Jewish, but we modelled this after the Jewish tradition because it is so helpful and comforting to bring everyone back together after a year.

Sep. 01 2011 10:40 AM
D from Brooklyn

Brian, Thank you for having this segment. I look forward to listening to it.

To a person trying to help someone in mourning: Listen. Let the person talk. Do not try to help except by listening. Do not make the person feel like he/she has to pretend to be cheerful. Let the person lead and just affirm his/her feelings. Do not get freaked out by any of the feelings the person has; grief is a storm and it changes over years, months, days, even hours or minutes.

To a person newly grieving: Find someone who will listen to you. I went to a support group and it was the single most helpful thing for me along with my husband, who tirelessly listened to whatever I had to say at any hour of the day and let me bring up or change the subject whenever I wanted but didn't do so himself. (He still does this but it has been almost 9 years since my loss so it's less frequent).

Sep. 01 2011 10:31 AM
jmurphy from long island

I would love for you to explain to people who have never lost someone close to them how to be there for friends.

I did a poor job being their for my cousin in law 10 years ago when her sister died 12 days before 9-11, probably because I had never lost someone and because I was afraid of what it was like to lose someone.

Now that I have lost my mother when she was only 65, I would also advise people that months later people are still grieving and remembering their loved one, and it would be welcome for people to continue to ask about them and offer comfort. Don't be afraid to remind people of pain - the pain is still there already.

Sep. 01 2011 10:27 AM
Gerald Fnord from Palos Verdes, Ca

Please avoid anything of the "[S]He's in a better place," variety unless you know for a fact that the mourner believes in that stuff; those who of us who don't find it particularly asinine at this sort of time.

Don't monopolise the mourner; someone at one of my shivah sessions refused to stop asking questions even after I tried deploying what I take to be standard human ways of appearing uncomfortable, though I might have messed-up that manual attempt at social signalling.

Don't say, "You'll get over it," because at the time that might seem like the least possible thing in the world, and might well be. Don't say, "[S]He would have wanted you to be so sad," unless you know the decedent was as considerate as that.

Do be there. Do talk about trivialities.

Sep. 01 2011 10:22 AM
Zainab from NJ

I lost my young brother two years ago, when he was 15 year old, to an illness no one could explain. He was in a medically induced coma for four months while doctors tried to figure out what was going on. In that time, my best friends knew that just being there was enough for me - and after he passed away, comfortable silence, a shoulder to cry on, and a sympathetic ear were all I wanted, and exactly what I got from the people who know me best. There are no words - I know I had no words and I knew how hard it was for other people to find the words as well, so a companionable silence and the warmth of a hand holding mine was more than enough.

Sep. 01 2011 10:10 AM

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