Dear Auntie Sparknotes,
Very recently, my boyfriend found out that his best friend committed suicide. He was devastated, but he's pretty much as stoic of a person as you can get, and in general he is rather quiet and prefers not to show much emotion.
My question is: how do I deal with this?
And I don't mean in any way to say that this is a burden to me, but I get extremely awkward around serious/emotional things like this, and I generally suck at giving advice/sympathy/emotional support. Pretty much all I've been able to voice is a stammering "uhm... I'm sorry... yeah that really sucks." I truly do care about my boyfriend and seeing him hurt like this is killing me. He's already voiced to me in the past that having someone to talk to during tough times really helps but the thing is he's just moved here recently and he doesn't have anyone to truly talk to besides me.
Auntie, how do I tell him that I'm there for him? (Explicit instructions might be necessary for an awkward turtle such as myself.) And if he chooses to open up to me, how do I... comfort? Sympathize? Support him? Mind you, I have this extreme discomfort for people crying; I tend to stand there awkwardly and then subtly walk away, as horrible as that sounds. All I want is to be able to take his pain away but I can't do that so the next best thing would be to just be there for him, I just need to know how.
In that case, you’re asking the wrong person.
Because unfortunately, no two people handle grief the same way—and what might be comforting and helpful to one can be utterly useless or even terribly hurtful to another. Which is why, when it comes to offering emotional support, your job is to follow the lead of the person in pain.
But we’ll get to that in a second, because it’ll be easier if we first cover the few universal rules about what not to do when a friend has suffered a loss—beginning, I’m sorry to say, with awkwardly wandering away when he or she starts to cry. I mean, OUCH. I know it’s awkward, Sparkler, but geez! Don’t do that! And also, don’t do this:
- Spout vapid, empty comfort cliches like, “It was God’s will” or “Heaven needed another angel.”
- Tell a grieving person to count his or her blessings instead of feeling sad. (e.g. “At least you still have your hair!”)
- Try to lighten the mood with jokes about the benefits of having a recently-deceased friend. (e.g. “Hey, one less birthday to remember, amirite?! HURR!”)
And now that you know how not to make things worse for a grieving person, here’s how to make things better.
1. Express your sympathy. Death makes people awkward and tongue-tied, so what you say is much less important than that you just say something. “I’m so sorry for your loss” is a good catch-all expression of sympathy. And if you don’t know what else to say, then just say that: “I feel terrible, I don’t know what to say,” or “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”
2. Put the focus where it belongs. Your feelings of anxiety and helplessness will become less when you stop asking yourself, “What do I do?” and start asking yourself, “What does this person need?” Sometimes you’ll have to ask, but in this case, your boyfriend has already told you that having someone to talk to helps him cope. So, let him talk. Ask him to tell you about his friend, his feelings, his memories (or, if he says he doesn’t want to talk about it, back off and let him take the lead). And in the meantime, let yourself off the hook on doing or saying exactly the right thing—because what you say in response is less important than that you listen in the first place.
3. Once you know how you can help, offer to do so in concrete terms. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” isn’t particularly useful to a person who already feels overwhelmed in the aftermath of a loss; it’s better if you can think of specific ways to help (e.g. “Would you like me to get the assignments you missed from your teachers?,” or “Do you want me to run interference with your friends so you don’t have to keep explaining what happened?”) and then let your boyfriend accept them if he wants to. Being supportive means being proactive—and yes, that sometimes means proactively saying, “Do you want me to leave you alone for awhile?”, and then backing off when the answer is yes.
And finally, remember this: feeling squicky, helpless, and awkward is normal, natural, and okay. There’s nothing comfortable or easy about seeing someone you love in agony. And if you can’t think of the right words, then settle for the trite ones: “I’m sorry,” “You must be devastated,” “I wish I could do more for you.” Because at the end of the day, it’s unlikely that your boyfriend will remember exactly what you said to try to help; he’ll just remember that you were there.
Have you ever helped a friend through a terrible loss? Tell us how you handled it! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at email@example.com.
Related post: Auntie SparkNotes: Grieving for Two