How To Support A Grieving Person

May 6, 2020

When someone we care about loses someone, we naturally want to help and comfort them. It can be hard to know what to say or how to act around this person though. Some people find it difficult to come forward and offer support to a grieving friend because they feel awkward and are at a loss as to what to say. This can feel hurtful and confusing to the person who is suffering.

What to say

People worry about what to say, thinking the bereaved person will be upset if you bring up the subject of their loved one. However, they are already upset, and it is doubtful that anything you say will make the person feel any worse, as they are already filled with grief and sadness.

There are some things you should avoid saying. Don’t begin a sentence with the words ‘at least’ and phrases to avoid include ‘give it time’, ‘this will make you stronger’ and ‘time heals all wounds’. These empty phrases minimise the mourner’s feelings and make the person who they loved seem less important.

It’s best not to say “at least he/she is out of pain now”. It’s not likely to be of any comfort, especially in the early stages, even if it’s true. Also, don’t say anything that assumes, such as saying that the person has gone to a better place. Firstly, you don’t know what that person believes in terms of the afterlife and the bereaved person may feel that you are saying that the best place was not with them.

Even if you have experienced bereavement yourself, avoid saying “I know how you feel”  because, again, this might not offer much comfort. Just as every relationship is unique, everyone experiences grief in a unique way, so it is unlikely that you do know how they feel. It would be better to say, ‘I can’t even imagine what you’re going through, but I will do anything it takes to help you through.’

Keeping it simple is usually best; most people appreciate hearing “I’m so sorry for your loss” or even “I don’t know what to say, I am in shock”. There is nothing wrong with honesty.

If you knew the deceased personally, a few words remembering a particular quality of theirs and acknowledging their place in the family and the world would be nice. for example. “He was such a kind and caring man”, “I know you’re going to miss him so much”, “she was a wonderful mum or “it’s just so unfair”.

Offer practical support

Dealing with grief can be exhausting and the bereaved person may be finding it hard to cope with all the everyday tasks. They may be struggling to motivate themselves to do housework, cooking, finding it hard looking after the children or just getting the dog walked.

You may like to offer to help them with paperwork or forms, as there can be a lot to sort through after a death and this can feel like a huge task to someone who was previously more than capable.

Practical assistance like this can be a good way of demonstrating that you are there for them and also provides opportunities to talk and provide emotional support while you are together and maybe doing one of the household jobs together.

People often say when someone is bereaved, “if you need anything, just let me know”. However, someone in deep grief doesn’t know what to ask for. It’s better instead to either just do something like, bring food, call to check on them, ask if you can mow the lawn, anything to make life easier for them. When you are going through grief you can’t even think about what you need.

Remember that grief does not go away after a couple of weeks or months. Don’t assume they are coping after a few weeks or months. Grief goes on for months, years, even decades. Ensure that you ask how they are for a long time after they have lost their loved one.

Be a good listener

In terms of emotional support, listening with a patient, non-judgmental ear is what is needed. Grief is often complex and messy and can’t be ‘fixed’; do not try and fix the person and their grief. You can’t do that. Just being present and listening is a good way to show support.

Don’t stop someone crying. Even saying “don’t cry” can seem as though they are being shut down. They may need to get the emotion out. Just be silent whilst they cry and give them a reassuring gentle touch to let them know you are there.

It may be that the person is not ready to talk but let them know that you are ready to listen as soon as they are.

Respect their way of grieving

People don’t always grieve in the same way. Some people may appear shocked or numb in the first few weeks whilst others breakdown immediately after the loss. A good friend will realise that some days the bereaved person will spend time reflecting and be sad, at other times they may want and need to be distracted, to engage in a practical activity or some self-care; to enjoy themselves. Don’t be scared to make the bereaved person laugh. You can tell them about your day or ‘silly things’ that may make them laugh. It can be a welcome distraction from their grief for a while.

Don’t forget

Remember that grief does not go away after a couple of weeks or months. Don’t assume they are coping after a few weeks or months just because you see them getting on with everyday life. Some people’s grief goes on for months, years, decades and they just learned to ‘cope’ with life. Therefore, ensure that you ask how they are for a long time after they have lost their loved one even if by a text, email or short phone calls. In the months and years following a loss, you could also show your support for the bereaved person by remembering and acknowledging significant dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, and other times they may find difficult e.g. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas. Grief can seem so much more raw at times like this so it would be nice for the bereaved to have the support then too. It also means that they know their loved one has not been forgotten by others.