Our happy dog Bob died unexpectedly last week. I learned about this when driving to Minnesota for a funeral for my aunt. (What a rotten day!)

While dealing with my own loss and mourning, I realized the people around me were equally at a loss about what to do.

Here’s what I learned and hope it will be of use to you.

How to Handle Another’s Grief

We’ve all been there. Someone at work loses a family member. A long-time client. A job.

Suddenly we all feel like an 11-year-old boy at a dance in the gym: staring painfully at our shoes, shifting our weight from side to side, and not knowing what to do.

What Doesn’t Work

We want to help, but aren’t sure how. So we generally choose one of these approaches:

  • Move the focus to us: “I’m sorry for your loss.” Or “I wish there was something I could say to make things better.” We talk about how we feel, which is sorry (on more levels than one). When people said this to me, I thanked them – focusing on the kindness behind the remark. But the upshot was that being grateful for this comment didn’t help me much.
  • Tell them how to feel: “She had a good, long life.” Or the blatant “Don’t be sad.” I experienced this as people telling me that I shouldn’t mourn – mostly because I was making them feel uncomfortable. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anybody to tell me how to feel – no matter how well intentioned. This devalues my loss.
  • Share platitudes: “You will find a better client/job.” “You’ll meet again in heaven.” These are true but useless phrases. They pointed to a future that I – as someone who is grieving – wasn’t ready to see. Sometimes I also read them as “hurry up and get over this.”
  • Oneup their sadness: Suddenly I heard lots of stories about people who had lost their family members or pets – some in particularly gruesome ways. This was an invitation to stop feeling sad about my loss and feel sorry for theirs instead, because it was greater than mine. Also not helpful – and pretty self-centered.

All of these boil down into an effort to fix someone. But you can’t duct tape grief.

It’s Hard to Look into the Face of Sorrow

On some level, we all feel that grief is contagious. Suddenly we start thinking about the family members, or clients or jobs that we might lose. And who wants to go there?

But seeing my sadness and letting me be – sometimes teary-eyed and snot-nosed sad – was what helped the most. Someone witnessing what I was going through, until that wave of grief had passed, was such a gift. No words were necessary. And for me, hugs were welcome.

For those who couldn’t be with me physically – for whom there were only words – here are the ones that meant the most. “I’ll keep calling to check in with you.” “Be gentle with yourself.” “How can I take care of you today?”

And, when I felt overwhelmed and unfocused, a friend said, “Just do the next right thing.” I discovered doing many little “right things” got me through the first tough days.

No one teaches us how to help people who mourn make it through a day of work. Here’s what I know: being mindful of and caring for someone who is grieving is one of the highest acts of kindness you can perform.

I will always remember the people who were there for me. And it will be an honor to be called on to do the same for them.