Meghan O’Rourke and Leeat Granek interviewed those in grief about what they wanted from friends and loved ones. Their findings:
The most surprising aspect of the results is how basic the expressed needs were, and yet how profoundly unmet many of these needs went. Asked what would have helped them with their grief, the survey-takers talked again and again about acknowledgement of their grief. They wanted recognition of their loss and its uniqueness; they wanted help with practical matters; they wanted active emotional support. What they didn’t want was to be offered false comfort in the form of empty platitudes. Acknowledgement, love, a receptive ear, help with the cooking, company—these were the basic supports that mourning rituals once provided; even if we’ve never experienced a loss ourselves, we know from literature and history that people require them. Yet as American culture has become divorced from death and dying, we no longer know how to address the most rudimentary aspects of another’s loss—what to say, when to say it, how to say it. Disconcerted by discomfort, friends or colleagues are all too likely to disappear or turn the conversation to small talk in the aftermath of a loss, not knowing what to say. Our survey-takers reported wanting to grieve communally and yearning to find ways to relate to those around them.
They are not the only ones yearning. “What should I say to my friend?” more than one person has asked each of us, about talking to grievers. Everyone fears putting a foot in his mouth, because in a world without scripted rituals to guide us, there is no “right answer”: What comforts one person sometimes pains another. But what the survey reflected was that mourners want their loss to be recognized and reflected back at them.
And so mourners were sensitive to anything that seemed to minimize their grief. Platitudes offering false comfort were seen as unsupportive, and even hurtful. Saying the loved one was “in heaven” or that it was “a blessing” that they were “out of pain” was not helpful; nor was saying, “I know how you feel” or “It’s all for the best” or “Time heals all wounds” or “It was God’s Plan.” No one wanted to hear these things, especially right after someone they loved and cared about had died. Instead, one wrote, “It helped me when people acknowledged—even nonverbally/tacitly—that I was grieving. Their acknowledgment meant (to me) that they knew I wasn’t ‘normal’ and they weren’t going to hold me to my usual standard. It felt unhelpful/unsupportive when people expected me to act like everything was normal (or seemed to expect that), since I did not feel like myself and didn’t have the energy for the activities and conversations that were the norm before my mom died.”