As my therapist pointed out to me recently, I’ve lost a lot of people in the few years, most notably, my older brother. I don’t pretend to be an expert on grief – on the contrary, I generally feel like I’m doing it wrong. But over the last 24 months, I’ve learned that the best thing someone can do is ask a good question and listen to the answer. Here are some of the best questions I’ve been asked, or wish I’d been asked.

What do you want to talk about? Not everyone wants to talk about their loss. I don’t even want to talk about it in therapy, and that is literally what I am paying my therapist for. Maybe they want a distraction, maybe their most pressing concern is printing funeral programs, or who’s going to pick up their aunt from their airport.

How are you eating/ sleeping? Especially useful if you can then offer a way to support them in either of these things: cooking or ordering food, taking over something so they can take a nap, getting them some Z-Quil.

Where does it hurt? A friend recounted telling someone that they wished they had a dial or meter on their body that could tell them how they were feeling, only to get the response, “…you do have that. It’s called your body. You just have to listen to it.” I have a really hard time identifying my feelings, but luckily, my body is much better at it. It’s more aware of my feelings than I am, and senses them in my chest, my stomach, my head. Asking someone how their body is feeling can be a way to get them to realize how they’re feeling, even if it’s subconscious.

Tell me about [your person]. About two weeks after the funeral, you’d be surprised how many people become uncomfortable with the mention of your loved one’s name. Telling stories about them makes people feel weird. Don’t feel weird if someone mentions their late parent/sibling/friend/etc.; they are as much a part of our lives in death as they were in life.

How are you? and not How is [another person]. It’s one thing if you’re checking in on someone you know and care about through someone who knows them better – for example, checking in on a friend by asking their partner how they’re doing. But too often, I’m asked How is your mother/ sister-in law/ father?, and while I appreciate concern, it feels like a way to avoid asking me how I’m doing and dealing with the response. You know that spiritual “It’s Me, Oh Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer”? It’s the person who’s in front of you, standing in the need of comfort.

And also:

Be there when someone loses a person. And also be there a month later, and two months later, and fourteen months later, and so on. As an existential French book I read in college reminds me, Quand on est mort, c’est pour toute la vie: when you’re dead, it’s for life. Be there. Keep being there.