Responding to those who are grieving:
As we get older, we're more and more likely to have friends who have lost significant people recently in their lives. If you have a friend in this situation, you likely will want to reach out and help in any way you can, but often it isn't obvious what type of assistance will be most beneficial. You also may be concerned that you’ll say the wrong thing.
Initially, simple words of comfort and reassurance can communicate that you are there to help support your friend during his or her grief. You might, for example, say, "I'm not sure I can find the right words, but I want you to know I care," or "I'm available any time you need to talk." Take care to avoid more superficial comments like, "You'll get over this in time." Assure your friend that you respect his or her privacy, practice the art of listening, and be willing to absorb whatever your friend expresses without feeling compelled to offer solutions, easy answers, or suggestions. Knowing there is someone there to talk to who isn't a family member can be of great comfort to older adults who are grieving. Many of us are more likely to open up to a friend than we are a child or other close family member who is dealing with their own grief after the loss. Share your memories of the deceased, and recall past events you all enjoyed together. You also might want to suggest that your friend create a personal memorial, like a special photo album or a tree or shrub planted in the garden.
A person who is grieving doesn't function normally. Your friend likely will be forgetful and disorganized—they may find it hard to remember household chores, medication regimens, and keeping up with medical appointments. When it comes to practical support we often we may say, "Let me know what I can do to help," but for someone who is dealing with loss, a generic offer of help may not be specific enough. Instead, be as clear as possible—for example, you might ask, "Can I get groceries for you when I'm at the store?" or "Would you like me to drive you to your regular doctor appointment, or to a local support group?"
Older adults who are grieving often skip meals, so when you're cooking for yourself, consider preparing extra and dropping the surplus into your friend. Keep in mind that mealtimes can be very lonely for a surviving spouse given that he or she probably ate with their partner—if you can, stay and eat together. Pitch in with light cleaning and chores, or arrange for a cleaning service to take care of it for your friend if he or she is agreeable. As with providing emotional support, be guided by your friend—we all need our space, and a particularly private individual who values his or her independence may not welcome too much intrusion.
The most important response for someone dealing with loss is to know that they are cared for and are not alone, particularly during the holiday season. Acknowledge what is happening, and reach out. Your friend may push you away at first, but don't give up. We all need comfort and support when we're grieving—we just may need it at different times and in different doses during the journey. Just remember that your intention shouldn't be to stop your friend's pain or help them "forget." Instead, aim to help your friend live with their loved one's memory in a way that doesn't cause pain.
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