10 Myths about Comforting a Grieving Person

By Val Walker

Myth1: You shouldn’t try to offer comfort unless you know what to say.

We don’t have to know the right thing to say. Sometimes there is really nothing that can be said. We might at least say we are sorry to hear about their loss, and acknowledge their loss. We still offer to show up, even if we don’t know what to say, because there are many, many ways to connect and communicate, depending on what that person desires – listening to their favorite songs, bringing catnip for their cat, baking a meatloaf, dumping their trash, playing a game of cards, doing their nails, watching Netflix together. We offer our time and our presence, and see what happens. Even Tweeting our comfort in little ways helps, by saying, “I’m thinking about you now, and I hope you are getting through today.”

Myth 2: Offer your assistance by saying, “Call me if you need me.”

It’s always better to be proactive by letting them know what we can do for them. Reach out with something simple and concrete. “I can call you Monday night,” is better than saying, “Call me if you need me.” People in distress suffer more when they are “left in the dark” about when contact will be made. No one wants to appear needy by having to call out for help.

Myth 3: To be effective at comforting we need to have lots of time to provide enough comfort.

We can be comforting in a matter of minutes, even in seconds. Little acts of caring can make a big difference for someone in distress.

Myth 4: We should try to cheer the person up when they are down, and encourage them to be positive. It’s our job to make the person feel better.

Allow the person to honestly feel what they are feeling. It is important to acknowledge what the person is telling you and acknowledge their loss. Insisting on showing the person “the bright side” of their experience can make the person feel invalidated, unheard, or unaccepted.

Myth 5:  People typically recover from the death of a loved one in a year or two. We should help the person move on with their lives.  

Grieving is a unique process for every individual, and the grief might never end completely. The Hospice Foundation of America says it best: “Grief never ends. Over time we learn to live with loss.”

Myth 6: We should be able to see results after we have helped a grieving person—we aim to make a difference in their lives. If not, we haven’t really helped.

Offering comfort is much more like offering a gift with no strings attached. Our comfort is given freely. The grieving person is allowed to respond in their own way, and in their own time.:

Myth 7:  Once we have reached out once or twice with our condolence, that should be enough. We don’t want to bombard the person while they are going through such a hard time.

It is wise to gently check in with the grieving person, every couple of weeks or once a month. It can be a brief check-in, without any pressure for the person to respond. Just letting the person know you are thinking about them, and asking how they are doing is a way of showing you are there for the long haul. Also, you can check in by inviting the person to join you for a phone call, or for lunch, or a social gathering. The grieving person will not feel forgotten, even if they turn down an opportunity to join in an activity.

Myth 8: We are not doing a good job of comforting unless we offer a hug, and show our affection, our warmth and love.

We don’t have to be “touchy feely” to be effective at comforting. Just listening quietly, or showing that we care with a kind gift, or offering to do errands such as walking their dog, or sending a thoughtful card —all of these gestures of comforting are genuinely loving things we can do.

Myth 9:  We should help the grieving person put things in perspective, by comparing their situation to what could be worse.

Comparing our experiences (“It could be worse…”) with each other is never helpful. No one has the last word on what is most painful for anyone else. It is best to just listen with an open mind and an open heart. Empathic listening and acceptance is a gift for a person devastated by a loss.

Myth 10:  Comforting skills can’t really be taught. People either have that gift or not.

Most of us learn to comfort others and ourselves throughout our entire lives. Opportunities for comforting arise every day. It is an art that we can always practice–and the more practice, the more wisdom we gain.

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, Comforting in Action.