Have you known someone who’s lost a loved one, or gone through some other trauma, and felt the desire to avoid talking to them or spend time with them until they were done grieving?
It’s a common feeling, and you may even convince yourself that you’re doing them a favor by giving them space, but silence and isolation won’t help their resilience.
Psychologists have a name for the kind of friend who avoids bringing up painful topics and acts like everything’s fine: they’re a non-questioning friend who’s practicing the mum-effect.
While these friends don’t mean any harm, their actions can lead to the grieving person feeling more alone than usual.
After her husband’s death, Sheryl Sandberg went to her friend’s house for dinner, and her hosts spent the entire time making small talk about sports and the weather.
This wasn’t unusual: everywhere she went, whether it was a speaking event or running into friends at the park, people would avoid acknowledging her loss. But it didn’t help; it just made her feel invisible, as if people couldn’t see her or recognize her suffering.
So, if you have a friend who’s grieving, you’ll find that making a small gesture to acknowledge their pain can make a big difference.
Sheryl was especially hurt by people who would ask her, “Hey, how’s it going?” Because she knew they just expected her to respond with the usual, “Good thanks, how are you?”
The simplest way to make a difference is to ask, “How are you today?” This acknowledges that the person is still going through a difficult period and that some days are better than others. This is a simple, kind way to express empathy.
When Sheryl heard this small difference in the question, it helped her to open up, be honest and process the grief. She was also happy on the occasions when someone offered her one of the best signs of compassion: a hug.
If you really want to help someone who’s grieving, acknowledging their situation is a great first step, but there are other simple steps to take.
One of the best is to let them know that you’re there to help.
In a way, this is like offering someone a panic button, which has been proven to reduce anxiety.
In 1971, there was a classic experiment on urban stress by social psychologists David C. Glass and Jerome Singer. They asked participants to solve puzzles and perform focused tasks while frequently bombarding them with loud noises and music. As a result, many signs of stress, such as high blood pressure and heart rate were recorded.
However, some participants were given a panic button that they could press at any time to stop the noise.
Surprisingly, none of the participants actually used the button, but those who had the option stayed calmer and made fewer mistakes.
It proved that we don’t need silence to be calm and endure stress, but rather, the knowledge that help is within our reach.
This is something you can provide by acting like that panic button for those you care about.
The co-author, Adam Grant, knew a student who had committed suicide. So he now begins the first class of each of his courses by writing his phone number on the board and letting his students know that they can call him if things become too difficult. It’s his way of providing a panic button.
It’s also best to offer specific help, and to not just say, “Let me know if you need anything.”
This is a common phrase, but it doesn’t make it any easier for the person to ask for help. Most people don’t want to seem like trouble, so they’ll usually avoid asking for anything at all.
But when you offer something specific, like helping them buy groceries or look for a new home, they’ll recognize your offer as genuine and coming from someone who cares.
Loss is difficult, but the key to bouncing back in the face of trauma and tragedy is to nurture your resilience and allow yourself to rediscover your sense of joy and hope. This can mean drawing support from groups and friends and not relying on your own strength alone. If it’s not you, but someone you know who is going through a tough time, don’t assume they need time to themselves. Instead, make sure to acknowledge their pain and reach out with specific things you can help them with. Stay strong.
Check out my related post: How to have compassion at work?