When Susan Budig lost her sister unexpectedly to cancer in May 2003, the Minneapolis-based writer was hurt by how some of her closest friends reacted. “They sent condolence cards after Jaci died, but when I saw them a few months later, they didn’t ask how I was doing or refer to Jaci at all,” Budig recalls. “I’d been through one of my life’s most traumatic events, and these longtime friends, who are dear and thoughtful and loving, were clueless as to how to handle the situation or acknowledge my pain.”
According to Robbie Miller Kaplan, author of How to Say It When You Don’t Know What to Say (Prentice Hall Press, 2004), Budig’s experience is not uncommon. “Most people have good intentions,” Kaplan says, “but they often don’t know what to say or do to support someone who is grieving.”
Grief is a natural response to any significant loss, including the death of a loved one, a miscarriage, the end of a relationship, or even unemployment. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross discovered in the 1960s that grief typically follows a pattern of stages, during which a person experiences denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet, as Kübler-Ross also recognized, the grieving process is unique for each person and for each loss.
Although there is no right or wrong way to grieve, moving through the process is necessary. It is also difficult and requires support from family and friends. “Learning how to comfort someone who is experiencing a difficult time is a skill we can—and should—develop because we will need it throughout our lives,” Kaplan says.