My psych teacher offered some great, practical advice when posed with the question: “How do I talk to my friend whose grandma died? Does she want me to talk about it or should I just ignore the subject?” My teacher’s reply: “Have you tried asking what she wants?”
I don’t know why, but it seems like many people, myself included, feel like they ought to instinctually know how to relate to a friend or family member who’s grieving and whether to bring “it” up or just pretend like nothing has even happened. It feels like I should just know what to do, so I sometimes feel badly because I’m honestly completely clueless. It leave me feeling like a social klutz.
I’ve felt better about my cluelessness, though, since my friend Victoria acknowledge the elephant in the room. My dad was (and still is) dying … slowly … from a degenerative brain disorder. It’d been a huge part of my life for awhile, and it was something most people usually avoided because the subject was uncomfortable and I’m sure they felt uncertain about what to say or if they even should say anything.
We were sitting on her front step, enjoying the summer weather, when Victoria randomly told me how she had no idea what to say or do in regards to my dad’s deterioration. She wanted guidelines; she wanted to know how I preferred her to handle the topic rather than just guessing what I might want. She seemed to feel silly for having to ask, but I appreciated it so much because it allowed me the chance to tell her. I’m sure lots of other people were unsure how I wanted the subject dealt with, but Victoria was the only person who allowed me to tell them.
I said it’d mean a lot to me if she asked how I was doing something because it made me feel like she hadn’t forgotten about me or my dad. And I told Victoria not to worry about reminding me or bringing it up at a bad time because if I didn’t want to talk about it, I’d be sure to let her know. I told her if I brought the topic up, myself, I didn’t expect her to “do” anything, but since it is such a big part of my life I just wanted to be able to share.
I think talking candidly about it made the subject of my dad’s health easier and much less awkward for both of us later on; I no longer felt like she’d forgotten I was dealing with something and she knew that it was okay to ask.
I think my psych teacher was right, asking the person who is grieving whether they’d like to talk about it or not (rather than asking teachers or other "experts” who’ve never even met the person) is a good place to start. There seem to be some general principles when it comes to dealing with someone who’s grieving—listen more, talk less—but there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all formula, so ask.