A friend of mine celebrated his birthday a week after I graduated. I was seated on a table with a couple of mutual friends, and the host's neighbour. The neighbour is 18 and suddenly lost her father 3 months ago, leaving her all alone (the mother has died 10 years ago).

It was obvious that she is feeling out of place at that party, very subdued and sad. I didn't know how to react to that, and decided to wait it out and just act normal. My friends started the topic of my graduation, and I was quite elated during the conversation.

The neighbour was just sitting there with hanging shoulders, not participating, which made me somewhat uncomfortable. I wanted her to feel less excluded since she could obviously not relate to the situation, so in a lull of the conversation, I asked a simple "how are you doing?". It proved too much - she broke down and sobbed for quite some time.

It seemed to me that sitting together with excited people discussing a happy life event was distressing for her, that the contrast with her own situation increased her own feelings of sadness and loneliness. It was also awkward that I had not seen her since her father's death, so I had not had a chance to give her my condolences.

Could I have done/said something to make the situation less painful for her? Preferably without having to hide my own joy of the graduation, and the pleasure of spending an evening with friends. I am not talking of artificially cheering her up, just sparing her the extra discomfort she seemed to feel from my behavior.

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    How did she react to her own sobbing? And what did you/the rest do? How did the rest of the party go after that?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Feb 26, 2018 at 8:05
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    You just presented a perfect example why I avoid asking "How are you doing?" unless I am completely sure to be in a situation where I could handle anything from a lengthy talk about life to a full-fledged breakdown. It can very easily be an emotional trigger if the person asked is in a bad situation. It could be the question they wanted to be asked for days (but not right now and right there) or the one they dreaded most in that specific situation or in general. Please don't feel offended. This came up in another question and I couldn't explain well why I am so careful asking this question.
    – skymningen
    Feb 26, 2018 at 12:22
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    @Tinkeringbell she was slightly embarrassed/apologetic, but mostly just went with it. My friend hug her, we were silent or made encouraging sounds without saying much. Later during the party, we somehow mixed up the sitting arrangements - maybe I did so first partly because there were so many other friends there I wanted to talk to and partly because I found it awkward, I don't remember exactly though if she was not the first to get up. She was the first person to leave the party later, still obviously sad.
    – rumtscho
    Feb 26, 2018 at 14:41

5 Answers 5


Everybody who grieves does so differently. There is no certain set of words that can bring comfort to everyone. One thing that a lot of bereaved persons say is that they wish others talked about the deceased more. This isn't always the case in the very early days after a bereavement, but you say it has been 3 months. Avoiding the subject does seem to make the bereaved feel more isolated in their grief.

However, it sounds like you don't know this person really well, as you refer to her as your friend's neighbour rather than your friend. Even though you knew about the bereavement, it would have been a bit weird for you to raise the subject, except perhaps to have offered your late condolences. I really don't think there is much you could have said or done to avoid her becoming upset. Likewise, unless you really knew her or the deceased well, it isn't really possible for you to say anything genuinely comforting other than platitudes.

It sounds like you were already sensitive to her situation despite not being particularly close. You attempted to include her in the situation by asking how she was. You weren't being insensitive by discussing positive things in your own life. In time, and with help from friends and family, she will be able to move forward with her own life.

If you wish to revisit the situation - maybe check up on how she is doing since the party - you could say that you were sorry to see her upset and offer your condolences. Avoid platitudes. If you have any real-life experience of your own in this respect it can help others to know that they are not the only one going through this situation.


From the perspective of a grieving person:

I can only tell you how a grieving person feels being surrounded by happy people.

For my part i suffered really hard for 3-4 months after my fathers death, always thinking about it and trying not to cry. However if you are on a party where people know what happened to you you generally want to try to look positive and not be sad at all. For my part i didn't want to drag anybody down.

Mistakes that are often made..

But as soon as somebody asks you how you are doing or 'how's it going' they pretty much f'ed up. They shouldn't do that.

My solution:

Try to involve the person in games or other activities during the party for the sake of distraction. The grieving person won't feel assaulted or whatsoever just because you don't talk about his/her life straight away. There is also a possibility that they don't wanna talk about it.


If you really feel like bringing it up, maybe do it when the party is over and he/she leaves. Maybe hug the person and say something like "If you wanna talk, i am here for you, thank you for dropping by! I hope you had some fun :)"


I agree with Astralbee's mention that everyone grieves differently. There is no surefire way to correctly approach every grieving person.

It may have been inevitable that she was going to respond the way she did to your question. That's no one's fault, though I can see why you'd construe thaty ou caused her outburst.

However, one tip though:

I asked a simple "how are you doing?". It proved too much - she broke down and sobbed for quite some time.

Think about the answer to "how are you doing?". The correct response to the question is describing her current state of mind, which requires her to think about how she's dealing with her father's passing, which requires her to think about her father's passing.
While the question comes from a good place, trying to answer it does the opposite of what you wanted it to. You wanted to distract her from what's been bothering her; but your question explicitly pulls it into focus.

Given the situation, it would've been better if you'd approached her on a topic completely unrelated to her father or her current state.
The fact that she was attending a birthday party proves that she at least tried to find a diversion, even though she wasn't able to actually focus on the party.

I'll use the example of my grandfather. He lost his wife (my grandmother) two years ago and was inconsolable fo over 18 months. Any attempt to console him would only cause him to cry harder.

My aunt focused on telling him how much we all love and miss her. That just made him cry more. My mom focused on where to go from here (he wasn't able to take care of himself, partly due to age partly due to the grief). That just upset him even more. My cousins brought his greatgrandchildren over, but since my grandmother was usually the one to play with them, they kids reminded him of her.

So I took a different approach, and talked to him about looking for a new place to live. He had been a landlord (as a side job) for a few decades, and has always been an instinctive advice giver.
He talked about tenant laws, explained some things to look out for, and started telling me stories of horrible tenants he had in the past.

He was perfectly capable of telling a funny story and laughing at it (not as loud as usual, but still smiling), because he was doing something familiar (giving advice and talking about what he knows) that did not in any way touch on my grandmother.

The same applies to the neighbour girl. Ask for her advice (which puts her in the role of having a handle on things) with something she's very knowledgeable on (so she can feel like she has a handle on things), e.g. if she's a good cook, ask her if she knows how to improve an average recipe of yours.
It's about empowering her, so she doesn't feel like she's a slave to the circumstances (which is often the root cause of grief) but rather in control of the situation.

More often than not, once you get them talking, they revert to their old selves. for as long as the current topic is their main focus.

If she does find her way back to the sad parts ("my dad always liked my cooking..."), try to acknowledge what she says but reframing the core of her message ("From what I hear, everyone likes your food. My attempts at cooking, however, ...").

People often have different mindsets that they're able to switch between. Some people are different at work than at home. Many people I know, when visiting a childhood friend, often revert to behaving the way they did back when they were close friends.

You can subtly (without her realizing) making her shift her mindset.
She likely won't switch her mindset willingly (it can be interpreted as dishonoring the person who died), but if you can do it without her realizing, it is likely to give her a reprieve from her grief, which is what she most needs. You can't fix the death of her father, but you can offer her a short moment to focus on other things in life.


From the perspective of someone who has done much grieving:

Lonliness is the worst part. It is made worse because nobody knows how to approach you, so it becomes a spiraling effect.

While it might seem to be counterintuitive and/or insensitive, engaging the person with literally any topic other than their grief is often the most helpful thing you can do. They've already heard the "Oh, I am so sorry", "Is there anything I can do" and "Let me know if you need anything". Those are all intended to be helpful, but they just keep the focus on the grief.

A good joke, a bad joke, small talk, ANYTHING to distract or get the focus off the grief is a welcome relief. Often, this can be done by someone less familiar than a close friend.

Don't discuss the grief, don't throw out platitudes, and whatever you do don't say "I know how you feel", because chances are, you don't and that can inspire great anger in a person.

To sum it up, just be there for a person and don't act like you have to act differently because of the grief.


As already said, everyone who is grieving does so differently, so you can't really know what to expect. Some people might be able to pick themselves up and have a short and upbeat conversation in response to "How are you doing?" while others... not so much.

That being said, in my experience when I attend events while sad/grieving/otherwise down I'm always very aware that I don't expect everyone else to be - and often I'm attending because I want to be around people who are radiating happiness/excitement, so that I don't get fully lost in what's going on with my life. It's quite possible this could be why your neighbor attended even though she was still feeling very glum (life goes on, and eventually we all have to try to shove ourselves back into normalcy).

If you aren't sure if someone will be able to emotionally respond to "How are you?", focus on throwing them the occasional smile or other "happy" non-verbal cues. There have been numerous studies that favor smiling being contagious, and getting her into the habit of acknowledging you back with smiles can help the grieving individual with their transition back into everyday life.

As a summary, if you aren't sure if someone can handle a private conversation about their emotional state, don't engage it. Just be happy at them (not snobbishly, of course, you understand), but share your joy!

If you want to let her know that you have thought of her in some way, you could contact her after the event (message/thank you card/in person) with a short, still upbeat, message containing your appreciation for her attendance and your wishes for her continued well being:

"Thanks for coming the other night, it was great to see you! I hope you're doing well!"

If you're comfortable with it, you could also throw in:

"I know things have been hard the past few months. If you ever need anything, don't be a stranger."

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    I disagree with the part about expressing wishes for her continued well being. The OP's friend obviously isn't doing well at the moment so OP saying they "hope [she's] doing well" strikes me as a little insensitive to her current mental state. Perhaps it would be better if OP asked if she was doing better instead?
    – Trebor
    Feb 27, 2018 at 9:31
  • @Trebor OP didn't seem terribly close to this person so I was just going off of the assumption that it might be upsetting for the neighbor to be told that she was failing to integrate and have fun at the event. I think it could go either way, but my preference is to try to stick to uplifting the neighbor rather than acknowledging her unhappiness very directly - because this could potentially set her back in her journey to get back to everyday life.
    – Jess K.
    Feb 27, 2018 at 10:51

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