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MAKING IT WORK : Some Tips for Helping a Friend Through the Pain

January 09, 1991|SHERRY ANGEL

Some people instinctively know how to comfort friends grieving for a lost loved one, but most of us aren't sure what to say or do. We worry that we'll only add to the pain if we don't respond in just the right way, so we send flowers and a note and hope our friends will be surrounded by others who can help. Once our friends have resumed their normal routines and seem to have put their grief behind them, we reappear and act as if nothing had happened.

Chances are they're still hurting, though, and that they still need understanding friends who can offer comfort when the pain suddenly surfaces.

Jeanne Preble, a therapist who advises the Orange County chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, has helped many survivors through the grieving process, and she says she would like to see more friends stay close during what is often a longer than expected mourning period. Preble, who practices in Fullerton and Irvine, offers the following suggestions to help people provide the kind of support that will bring comfort:

* Don't discount survivors' pain by trying to shift attention away from it. Accept it and share it by allowing them to cry and by listening with compassion. To initiate a conversation, ask: "How are you feeling today? Do you want to talk about it?" Talking about their losses helps survivors accept it.

* Don't respond with cliches or easy answers or try to counsel those who are grieving. Remember: You can't fix anything for them; you can only be there to provide support.

* Don't reward survivors for stoicism by complimenting them on how well they're holding up. They may be pretending they're OK out of a sense that that's what their friends need to see. Survivors need to be able to express their feelings instead of putting on a strong front for others.

* Don't tell them, "Call me if you need me." They probably won't. People who are grieving tend to be forgetful and can't be expected to initiate social contact. Call them and say, "What can I do to help?" Doing such simple tasks as sorting through mail, running errands or cooking a meal can be enormously helpful, and these are ways for you to offer support if you are unable to handle emotional conversations.

* Include these friends in social gatherings, and reassure them that they don't have to worry about ruining the party if their spirits are low. They may decline if they're not ready for such socializing, but at least they will know you haven't forgotten them--and that they don't have to hide their feelings around you.

* Remember that tremendous amounts of anger and irritability go with grieving. Survivors can be angry at a world that seems to go on as if nothing has happened when everything around them has crumbled. This anger will only be magnified should friends try to coax the survivors back into their normal routines before they are ready.

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