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How to Help a Friend Through Grief This Memorial Day

May 2019 | By Youssef Sleiman

Memorial Day honors fallen soldiers who leave behind grieving parents, spouses and children. You want to be supportive, but what do you say? A 10-year veteran grief counselor offers these guidelines.

Friends mean well.

However, if your words aren’t wisely chosen, you can hurt a friend who’s already suffering from the loss of a loved one.

Interstate Batteries keeps a light burning for our veterans and their families. More than 50 military veterans work in our home office alone, including Chairman of the Board and U.S. Army veteran Norm Miller – and we like to hire veterans for any of our openings across the country. They’re a rare, capable and powerful population in America.

Grief, on the other hand, is more common than military service.

It’s hard to watch men mourn their wives. It makes you uncomfortable to watch a mother cry for her son. You might avoid talking about a dead spouse, even years later, instead of acknowledging your friend’s pain for what it really is: grief.

For those who lost loved ones in military duty, these feelings may rise to the surface on Memorial Day.

So we turn our attention to you, the friends and family members surrounding survivors of the fallen. Love, one of our culture’s values invites us all to mourn with those who mourn. You may be close to a military family, friends at work or even friends on Facebook with someone who’s experienced a loss.

To be a supportive friend, you need more than pop culture advice and misplaced clichés.

The five stages of grief aren’t how grief works at all, no matter what you think you learned from the popular theory about Haunting of Hill House. You may have lost a loved one of your own, and your pain is real, too. It just takes a different shape than your friend grieving a fallen service member.

Grief takes many shapes. The Department of Defense sponsored a $3 million study of bereavement and wants to offer grief support phone apps to grieving survivors, the Gold Star mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who need good friends like you.

But you’ve likely never been in the military. How can you be a good friend to the grieving this Memorial Day?

We talked to a professional to get her advice.

  • Acknowledge their loss. This runs counter to every instinct you might have, but it’s the right thing to do, no matter how long ago.
  • Listen and look for what your friend might need – then offer to help specifically.
  • When you speak to them, speak comfort. Restrain your instinct to talk about how your own troubles might relate to theirs.
  • Put a name to your feelings when you don’t know what to do and wait for what your friend wants to do. Maybe you’re the distraction they need. Maybe they don’t want a hug.
  • Learn how grief works. That’s why you’re here, right? At the end of this article, we’ll point you to all the online resources available to your friend. You can help by passing them on.

Saying is easy. Doing is hard.

Let’s walk you through it.

Grieving Friends

1. Acknowledge their loss, no matter how many years it’s been.

“Show as much love and support as you can. It’s nice to have a friend to be there to listen. Sometimes they just want you to give a hug and say I’m here. That’s one of the best things a friend can do.”

Barbara is a certified clinical trauma professional (CCTP), a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). A grief counselor, she serves veterans round the clock and has 10 years of experience serving veteran and veteran families. Barbara shared her experience under a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the veterans and veteran families she serves because her combined experience and credentials could identify her patients.

As a 10-year veteran grief counselor, she’s often the one to pick up the pieces of a grieving survivor, occasionally after a well-meaning friend shatters them.

Which makes her a unique expert to start this conversation.

Your instinct may be to avoid talking about the dead loved one. This sends the wrong signal: “Your distress is unwelcome with me.”

Just because grief is something your friend must go through, that doesn’t mean they have to go alone.

Say “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Say “My favorite memory of your loved one is …”

Say nothing and show you’re willing to listen.

Your willingness to acknowledge their loss says you’re open to being beside them during this hard time. Remember that grief may never leave your friend. Whether they lost a brave son decades ago or a wife in the last year, it’s always appropriate to acknowledge the loss, even if it’s been 50 years. Especially if it’s been 50 years.

Over time, grief can turn into what psychologists call complicated grief, recently added to the Diagnostic Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders. Be it the death day of their loved one, a certain month or Memorial Day, anniversaries and memories can trigger fresh pain, a recurring fear of leaving home, intrusive memories and dreams. 

“I see a lot of it in the Vietnam vet population, and they’re triggered harder in their old age than when they were younger,” Barbara said.

You can also invite them to talk about their loved one. This depends on how close your relationship is, how your friend feels and a host of other factors. What’s important, though, is showing an openness to their pain.

If they’re willing to talk, you have only one job: Listen to understand, not respond.

“This is why we do need grief counselors to help them professionally,” Barbara said. “Get educated before criticizing or offering ‘helpful’ comments. Otherwise, you could be just emotionally abusive.”

2. Offer to help with specific tasks.

“Is there anything you need to help you get to the cemetery on Memorial Day?”

“Do you want someone to come with you to the local commemoration?”

“Would you like me to get gas for your car?”

Flags and Cannon at Memorial

Get specific when you want to help your friend. They feel like garbage when they’re processing their grief. Mundane tasks take monumental effort for them, even if it looks to you like it should be easy. They can’t remember the insurance guy they have to call, the address of the cemetery or even how to find the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post.

This Memorial Day, don’t offer a vague sentiment like “I’ll help in any way I can.” You’re just putting the burden back on the grieving person to figure out how you can help.

Instead, look and listen for specific ways to help.

Barbara recommended a way you can help that would actually contribute to your friend’s healing process. It takes a bit of work, but you can do it any time in the year: Offer to contact a local VFW post to set up a dinner to celebrate the life of their loved one.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States is a nonprofit veterans service organization connecting veterans and advocating on their behalf.

“Let’s say I’m the Gold Star mom and the VFW contacts me and says, ‘Do you want us to put a dinner up in his honor and to celebrate his life?’ Yes, that’s tremendously helpful,” the grief counselor said. “It honors her grief, helps her heal her grief, and honors hers on or daughter with continuous recognition. That’s healing and supportive, and then you have the community around them.”

Barbara knows it’s tough to be a good friend to those grieving survivors. The less you assume about their emotions and pain, the better off you’ll be.

Sometimes, you might offer specific help in a crisis moment. If they’re crying and you’re not sure what to do, try this.

In a kind, loving and compassionate tone, simply ask “Do you want me to stay with you for a minute?” or “Is there somebody I can call for you?”

And you can offer them the Veterans crisis hotline: 1-800-273-8255. (We have more resources at the bottom of this article.)

3. Speak comfort and dump elsewhere.

Every death creates shockwaves of grief.

And right now, your friend stands at the epicenter.

This service member was also your friend, your colleague or your community member. Like we said earlier, your own pain is real. And their death may remind you of feelings from when you lost a loved one. Your loss may not have been in military duty, but you’re feeling fresh pain because the losses are compounding your emotions.

Should you share your thoughts and feelings with your now-grieving friend? No.

Later perhaps, but not in the moment when they’re processing their grief.

Instead, the professional grief counselor you give as much comfort as you can to the person experiencing the loss – and then get comfort for your pain from another source.

How Not to Say the wrong thing this Memorial Day.One simple model describing this appeared in a 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. They call it the Ring Theory and it follows a simple rule: Comfort in, dump out.

Imagine a circle with multiple rings around it. The person at the epicenter of the trauma – your grieving friend – is in a center circle. In the next ring is next closest person to the trauma, maybe the deceased’s in-laws. Keep filling the rings with groups of people, close friends, relatives, distant relatives, work friends, strangers.

Here’s where the rule comes in. The person in an inner ring (especially your friend in the center) may say whatever they want: “It’s unfair!” “I can’t bear it.” “Why?” “You won’t believe what else happened.” Complain, whine, yell, pitch a fit – they’re allowed.

Anyone in an outer ring (that’s you) may only send comfort to those on inner rings. “I feel so sorry.” “Would you like me to stay with you a moment?” “We love you.”

What if your feelings are so fresh you can’t help talking about them? Then consider the possibility you’re grieving, too. Grievers can’t always comfort the grieving. Don’t bring up a different death in your past, an unfair situation or a recent hardship you’re facing.

Don’t bring your pain to your grieving friend.

Instead, tell someone in a bigger ring. Like your own local grief counselor


4. Name your feelings. Then follow your friend’s lead.

When you don’t know what to do or how to move forward with your friend, name what you’re feeling.

This one’s a biggie. It’s harder than it sounds. You’ll need to look up some feeling words. (Check out the feelings wheel.) You also need to check yourself to make sure you’re not dumping your own hurt feelings in a way that burdens them (see the Ring Theory above.) If you focus on your friend’s needs and name the feeling you have in the moment, you’ll save yourself nine times out of 10.

Stuttering? “I’m stuttering. The right words are so hard to find.”

Got nothing? “When I’m surprised, my mind goes blank sometimes. Whatever my face is showing, know that I’m here for you.”

Feel like it’s a hug moment? Better be sure. “I think you need a hug. Do you want one?”

Not sure whether to lean in or offer a distraction? Say so. “I’m willing to talk about it if you want to. If you want something else to talk about, that’s fine, too. I’m here for you now.”

Feel like you’ve got nothing to offer? Say that. “I don’t know what to say. Everything seems so small compared to what you’re going through.”

Then see how your friend responds.

Whatever they do, match your response.

Don’t assume you can anticipate their needs. Every person deals with grief in a unique way. Barbara described how even family members show a grief response as unique as their fingerprints. And that’s why you can only be a supportive friend.

“There’s a lot of people who think they’re therapists and try to help their loved ones,” Barbara said. “The reason why it’s hard is they’re not trained in offering help.”

We all want to save our loved ones from pain. But we can’t fix this one.

That’s why Memorial Day exists in the first place.

Close up of Memorial

5. Learn how grief works.

Veterans make up 6 percent of the current U.S. population, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A recent Council on Foreign Relations report showing that the active military is less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population.

“A lot of young people who have never been in the military don’t understand it. Many friends and relatives don’t have any military experience,” Barbara said.

To be a good friend to the grieving, it pays to learn about both the military and grief.

Learn the difference between a Gold Star family member and a Blue Star family member. Get your Veterans Day and Memorial Day straight. Look up military ranks. If you hear an acronym you don’t understand, ask.

And make sure what you learned about grief didn’t come just from a TV show.

The popular five stages of grief came from a model never meant to describe how the average person deals with loss or grief. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross originally introduced the model in 1969 to describe the emotions of terminally ill patients facing their own deaths. In the years that followed, her model has been applied to everything from losing a pet to organizational change. They were never step-by-step nor all-encompassing. In her 2005 book published after her death in 2004, she regretted that her model had been so misunderstood. 

Instead, the military, in its resource guide for surviving family members, uses a different approach: the four tasks of grief. Developed by psychologists William Worden and Therese Rando, the tasks encourage the griever to take an active role in their own grieving process.

  • Accepting the reality of the loss. Understanding that a loss has happened can be both simple and profound.
  • Mourning the death of a loved one. Mourning is the outward expression and behaviors, and grief is the internal feeling. Feeling the (sometimes physical) pain can take a long time before it lessens. Longer if there are distractions.
  • Adjusting to the environment. This can be learning unfamiliar tasks done by the deceased, arranging the house or updating a contact list.
  • Forming a new identity. The emotional energy once invested in the relationship with the deceased military service member needs to be reinvested in a positive direction.

These aren’t in order because grief doesn’t follow orderly stages or steps. Likewise, there’s no telling on how long any task may take. Grief isn’t even always outwardly expressed.

The most hurtful words come from well-meaning friends who don’t understand grief’s perpetual nature. Barbara shared one of the most common and most hurtful phrases veterans and their survivors hear: “Can’t you get over it? It’s been 50 years.”

Flags and Flowers at Memorial

“Those are the worst thing you can say to a veteran,” Barbara said. “They feel betrayed, misunderstood and incredibly rageful. The grief never goes away. PTSD never goes away.”

Your friend may have to work through all the tasks multiple times. You cannot make your friend progress further through their grief. That is their work. There is no fixing this problem. This is a process that your friend must go through.

As a friend, you can understand this: Your friend may deal with the loss all their lives.

And that’s a good first step.

6. Share these online resources for dealing with grief.

As a friend to the grieving, you can offer immediate support in all these ways.

That said, you don’t have to know all the answers.

That’s what the professionals are for. Below are just some of the Gold Star family-specific services available. Share them before a moment of crisis comes.

Do you have some kind words that you always use?

Do you have a story of how you comforted a friend grieving a fallen service member?

Who's the service member you'll think of this Memorial Day?

Join the conversation on Facebook & Twitter.

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