Offering support to a grieving relative, friend, or colleague can be difficult for most people. We may be afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we say nothing at all. This can leave the bereaved person feeling isolated and alone. While everyone’s experience of grief is different, there are universal ways of showing support when someone is dealing with a significant loss. The first of which is simply reaching out.
Support During the First Few Days
Reach out to the bereaved person as soon you learn of their loved one’s passing. This could be a personal visit, telephone call, text message, sympathy card, sending flowers, or providing a meal. You’ll have a sense of which approach is best based on the nature of your relationship. The key is just connecting, so they feel less alone.
Attend the funeral or memorial service if you can. It’s meaningful to those experiencing a loss to know you care enough to be there for them during this difficult event. If you’re unable to be there in person, offer them your support and don’t be afraid to ask what they need at this time (keep in mind, they may not know what that is just yet).
Listen With Compassion
The most important help you can offer is a willing ear. Allow the bereaved person to talk and express their grief in whatever way they need. This may include crying, angry outbursts, screaming, laughing, expressions of guilt or regret, or engaging in activities that reduce their stress, such as walking or gardening.
Concentrate your efforts on listening carefully and with compassion. Since everyone’s experience of grief is unique, allow them to grieve in their own way and withhold judgement of their response. If they don’t feel like talking, don’t push them. Remember you are comforting them just by being there and sitting together in silence is helpful too. Holding the person’s hand or giving them a hug can be exactly what they need in that moment (be sure to check if physical touch is okay with them first).
Practical Help for a Grieving Person
Another way to show support is by offering practical help. Taking over some of the everyday chores allows them room to grieve and focus on what they need. You might consider doing some of their housework, such as cleaning, laundry, or bringing over pre-cooked meals that only require reheating before serving. If there are regular duties, such as picking a child up from school each afternoon, volunteer to take over for a while. Your loved one might even ask that you answer the phone on their behalf, so they can take a break from sharing the unfortunate news or discussing it when they aren’t feeling up to it.
Be mindful that the bereaved person may not want you to support them in this way at all. You should respect their decision if they decline the practical support.
Approaches to Avoid
It’s a natural reaction to want to ease someone’s pain. However, well-meaning words that encourage the bereaved to ‘look on the bright side’ can be hurtful. It’s best to avoid comments like:
- ‘You’ll get married again one day.’
- ‘At least you have your other children.’
- ‘She’s lucky she lived to such a ripe old age.’
- ‘It was God’s will.’
- ‘You can always try for another baby.’
- ‘He’s happy in heaven.’
- ‘Be thankful they’re not in pain anymore.’
- ‘Try to remember the good times.’
- ‘You’ll feel better soon.’
- ‘Time heals all wounds.’
- ‘Count your blessings. You still have a lot to be grateful for.’
- ‘You’ve got to pull yourself together and be strong.’
- ‘I know exactly how you feel.’
- ‘Everything happens for a reason.’
Grief Over Time
It’s normal to want to fix things when we know someone is upset. However, when it comes to the death of loved one, the reality is you can’t ‘fix’ someone’s grief. Grief is a process, not an event. It doesn’t have a timeline, and it’s not unusual for grief to be felt over an extended period of time – be it months, years, or even decades after the person’s death.
As you navigate this process alongside your loved one, there are some helpful things to keep in mind:
- Don’t shy away from them after the funeral. Keep in contact, even just by phone.
- Never suggest it’s time they ‘get over it’ and moved on with life. Appreciate that the person may continue to grieve in subtle ways for the rest of their life.
- Don’t change the subject if the deceased person naturally comes up in conversation. The bereaved person needs to know their loved one hasn’t been forgotten. Use the name of the deceased person in conversation and try to avoid using words like he or she.
- Remember there will be days in the year that will be particularly difficult for the person to bear(e.g., anniversaries, significant occasions, and the birthday of the person who has died). Be sensitive to these times and offer your support.
Nothing will make a bereaved person feel better about their loss, but there are things you can do to provide comfort and support. If you’re unsure of how to support someone who is grieving, it’s okay to ask them what they need or want. Simply letting them know you care and would like to help can provide great comfort.