- It's natural to want to help a friend or family member cope with losing a loved-one to cancer, but it can feel awkward if you're not sure where to start.
- Be proactive in your approach, rather than waiting for your friend to explain what they need.
- You should also focus on happy memories and validating your friend's emotions, rather than dwelling on what could have been.
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When a close friend or family member loses a loved-one to cancer, your first inclination is to support them like you'd want them to support you.
But if you've never experienced such a loss yourself, figuring out what to say or do can feel awkward.
According to Rachel Cannady, the American Cancer Society's strategic director for cancer caregiver support, the best approach is a proactive one where you offer to help in specific ways and validate your grieving loved-one's emotions, no matter how difficult.
"As friends and family members, we need to be ready and willing to help somebody cope with those feelings and never dismiss someone's anxiety or anger around death. That's inappropriate," Cannady told Insider.
Don't: Ask, 'how are you?'
"How are you?" is often used as a standard greeting and rhetorical question that signals politeness.
But a grieving person doesn't have cordiality on their mind, and asking "How are you?" can feel insensitive because it's fairly obvious they aren't OK, according to Harvard Health.
Using this question, regardless of your intentions, could make your friend feel like they can't share honestly, according to Cannady.
Do: Be curious about their specific emotions, and validate them
On the other hand, asking, "How are you feeling today?" creates space for a grieving person to share their in-the-moment emotions, whether good or bad.
Cannady said some days are easier than others, and being supportive regardless of the emotions your friend is feeling can help them process the situation.
"Let them know that you're ready to hear them without judgment," Cannady said.
If your friend says they feel grateful for knowing their deceased loved-one, foster that positive emotion by sharing happy memories of your own, or asking more positive questions. And if your friend says they're sad or angry, remind them those responses are valid, and you're there for them.
Don't: Mention people who have survived the same type of cancer
When Cannady's mother suddenly passed away from cancer six years ago, well-meaning friends mentioned success stories about others who survived.
In hindsight, she realized they were just trying to relate to her grief, but in the moment, their comments felt insensitive and hurtful.
"Nobody wants to hear that, and it will create anger and even more sadness. It will complicate grief, so I think those similar stories should be completely avoided," Cannady said.
Do: Share happy memories
A better way to relate to your grieving friend is to share joyful memories of the person they lost.
"Focusing on those memories of conversation, of connection, of what they accomplished or things that they were proud of, and their relationships, those are the things that comfort us truly," Cannady said.
If you didn't know the person yourself, you could ask your grieving friend about their favorite memories or qualities.
Don't: Ask, 'What can I do for you?'
You never want to overstep boundaries, but asking an open-ended question like this one during a period of grief is unproductive, Cannady said.
People who are grieving are often too busy with emotional, financial, and other hurdles that come with losing a loved-one, and might not have the capacity to think about what they need in the moment.
Do: Offer specific support, like cleaning or grocery shopping
That's why you should consider what would be helpful for your loved one, and offer to do that thing outright.
If you're going to the grocery store, for example, Cannady said to ask your friend for their list too and shopping for them. You could also offer to clean their home, do laundry, or plant some flowers in their garden as a pick-me-up.
"Instead of asking them to tell us what they need, give them an opportunity to say, 'Hey, I'm going to do this,'" Cannady said.
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