Photo by m a r i s a

“If there’s anything I can do… please let me know.”

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you’ve heard those words spoken. On the phone, in person, accompanied by a hug or a handshake, written inside a sympathy card…

And if you’ve ever anxiously stood by while a friend suffered through the process of grief and mourning a death, you’ve probably said the same thing yourself — meaning every word of it, too.

“If there’s anything I can do…” is usually born of a sense of helplessness, don’t you think? We ache for the friend who is in pain, we want to reach out and “fix” everything, but so often we just don’t know what to do.

So, what really does help, when someone you care about is struggling to come to terms with a sudden loss?

The answer is probably different for each individual, as we all react differently to different emotional situations —

I’ll bet you know someone who craves a big hug for comfort, for example, and others who turn inside their emotional wall to present a stoic face to the world. Me, I’m all in favour of the hugs. In fact, a physical touch is often a good start. Put an arm around your friend’s shoulder, and that touch can cut right through the awkwardness of searching for the right words…

Another thing that I’ve found helpful is to hear all the wonderful memories that different people treasure. To me, this man might be a father — but to these other people, he was a childhood playmate, a fellow student, a companion in adventure, an “old flame” or life-long friend, a respected colleague, and so on. Catching a glimpse of these other roles can only add depth to my own memories… and help me to feel that the life that has now ended was one of great richness and worth: a good life, well lived. And there is real comfort in that.

I’m still in the process of sorting it out in my mind, what that “anything” is that a friend might do… and by an interesting coincidence, I just came across this ebook on how to help the bereaved, that offers to help with:

    * writing a condolence letter when someone loses a loved one

    * how to offer to help without causing offence

    * how to really listen to your bereaved friend

    * cooking and shopping for the bereaved

    * helping with children and teenagers

    * helping with the mountain of paperwork that bereavement brings

    * how to make holidays and short breaks fun again

    * doing odd jobs around the house and garden

    * being there for the long haul

    * buying the right gift

Now, I haven’t read the book yet — just came across the mention of it this evening — but the very fact of its existence did make me think.

As the years roll on by, as Donna reflected, more and more of us are experiencing the loss of a parent or other loved one… and yet, all the old Victorian conventions of etiquette have been misplaced, and we no longer know what to do beyond buying a sympathy card.

“If there’s anything I can do…”

One thing I can tell you, if you’re the one who is bereaved:
it is possible that the greatest comfort may come to you from reaching out to comfort others.

Yes, there will be times when you just want to shut the doors and put your head down and howl like a wounded wild animal — but when you can, rise above and reach out. There is no more sure way of knowing, heart-deep, that you’re not alone.

Allowing others to give their condolences, remembering that they too may have been through the same experience recently, and welcoming their memories of the deceased — in short, trying to put the focus on comforting those who are also grieving the loss — there is a remarkable peace to be found in looking outward and giving back.

That’s my experience, anyway.

What do you do to help, when a friend is grieving?

What has a friend done that you find has helped you to carry on, when life is tough?

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Celine


    Thanks for our thoughtful post. I think it helps a lot to talk about these things–even though we mostly don’t like to be reminded about our mortality. Sometimes just being with someone without words and accepting tears and grief can be powerful. Sometimes people feel most comfortable grieving by themselves. Years ago I read a book about grief–can’t remember the title–that talked about asking the person to talk and remember the person who died. Something like saying,”Tell me about your mom.” This helps a person to begin to grieve. Grief can be more than tears but tears are expected. Grieving people often need time and space to process the loss. It can be huge but there is the other side of grief. Everyone gets there in their own time.

  2. Mohsin

    Jen, it’s always been tough for me to console a grieving friend. I usually can’t get past the awkwardness of the silence. And when I do, I end up with something like, “It’s OK, everything is gonna be all right”.

    Not very helpful, is it?

  3. domestika

    @Sharon, The Five People You Meet in Heaven is new to me — thanks for the tip, it looks like a great read.

    @J., I’m so sorry about your Mom. If there was ever a reason to put your head down… but so sad to lose a friend, on top of it, because she wasn’t able to accept your style of grief, what you needed to do to get through it…

    @Rob, you’ve put your finger on what troubles me about the phrase, even though I know I’ve said it myself more than once. It’s such a relief, isn’t it, when one can look around and find something practical to do, just something to help out in some small way.

    @Mitch, don’t you find that sometimes even just acknowledging that you don’t know what to do or say — coming right out and saying that — can be a good way to help someone tell you what they need from you? Sometimes…

    @Pinhole, yes, indeed, there’s a lot to be said for being there and listening. I’ll bet that you’re as good a listener as you are a rambler-on, too!

    @Neena, I have a theory about that. When the person who has had a loss is a close friend, the loss is partly shared by you, almost… so it’s easier to empathize and find a way to respond. Distance makes it all more difficult to judge what will help.

    @Sue, your husband is clearly a prince! When grief is the dominant emotion, a small thing like a broken screen door can just be overwhelming. What a wonderful (and quintessentially male) gesture of practical sympathy — to look around, see the need, grab a screwdriver and go to it!

    Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a chance to do a lot of thinking about sympathy cards, too… what works to bring comfort; what doesn’t so much.

    Two thoughts there:

    1. Sometimes a card reflects giver’s faith and not mine: but that’s okay. The intention of comfort is clear, and that’s what matters, not the fine points of theology.

    2. When I sent someone else a sympathy card, any time from now on, I’m going to make a point of writing at least a line or two inside, rather than just signing my name and not much more. It’s hard to find something to say, but even just a couple of lines of personal thoughts do make such a difference.

  4. Sue


    First, I’m so sorry for your recent loss.

    Which brings me to my comment. The best thing to say is, “I’m so sorry.” With a touch of some sort, a hug if you’re close, a reach out and take the hand if you’re not.
    The “if there’s anything I can do” line is too open ended, like the others have said. I think Rob O. has the best way to help. I’m reminded of a time my current husband lost a friend; he was at the widow’s house after the funeral and noticed the screen door was broken. He just picked up a screwdriver and fixed it. It’s those kinds of things that really mean a lot.

  5. What a thoughtful post. These difficult emotional times are often awkward to so many. I have a harder time when it is an acquaintance that has suffered a loss. Since I don’t know the person well, I am not sure what to say or do – so I find myself saying “if there is anything I can do…”. If the person is a close friend then I have a better handle on that person’s needs and can offer more helpful support.

  6. Pinhole

    It’s so hard to know what is appropriate in each individual case. I tend to simply hang around on the fringe and if my ear is needed, I try to make myself available.

    Holidays can be especially difficult.

    In my experience, friends who knew when to let me ramble were invaluable. I will probably need to buy them all a Beltone hearing aid…or, at the very least some salve for their ears.

  7. Mitch

    I have never known what to do.
    I agree with Rob O. about the open-endedness of that statement. I also agree that folks seem helpless to find the right words or actions.
    Hugs work. Simply acknowledging the loss, being present (paying your respects) or sending a card (empathy) has helped my family and friends in their time of bereavement.

  8. Rob O.

    “If there’s anything I can do…” is just too open-ended. The grieving friend is probably too overwhelmed to think at such a stressful time. So you need to break things down into bite-sized options instead.

    So, for example, make more specific helpful advances like, “I’m headed to the market for a few items. Could I pick up some milk, pet food, or anything for you while I’m there?” or “Since I’m headed to the post office anyway, do you have any bills or letters that I could drop off for you?”

    Perhaps there’s dry-cleaning to be picked up or kids who need to be shuttled around town. Think of the day-to-day routine “to do” stuff that’re easy to lose track of and then offer to lend a hand with those.

  9. J.

    What a great post.
    After my Mom passed, I did the ‘shut the doors and put my head down’ thing. I actually lost a good friend because of it. She couldn’t get it.
    I think the best thing is just knowing what your friend needs and going with it.

  10. Sharon

    I often find a hug is a big help, as well as being around to talk if people need to. The same things have worked for me when things have got tough. This was a thought provoking post and reminds me of the ways in which we all touch each other’s lives, even when we are not aware of doing so. This was captured beautifully in The Five People We Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom.

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