How to help someone who is grieving
When someone close to us experiences a bereavement, we naturally want to help that person. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to offer comfort and support.
Help can be delivered by the things you say and the things you do. Although how exactly you can help someone who is grieving will depend on the individual.
Finding the right words
When someone has been bereaved, many people worry about saying the ‘right’ thing. The truth is it’s unlikely anything you say could make the grieving person feel any worse, but there are some types of comment best avoided.
Try not to use platitudes such as ‘at least he/she is out of pain now’ – this may be true, but especially at the early stage following a loss is unlikely to be of much comfort. Similarly, ‘he/she has gone to a better place’ not only makes assumptions about the person’s belief or otherwise in an afterlife, but implies the ‘best place’ is not here with their loved ones, which is just where the bereaved person wishes them to be.
Even if you have experienced bereavement yourself, avoid saying ‘I know how you feel’ – you don’t. Just as every relationship is unique, everyone experiences grief in a unique way. Although it’s usually sincerely meant to express sympathy, ‘I know how you feel’ risks diminishing the uniqueness of that experience.
Keeping it simple is usually best; most people appreciate hearing ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ and, especially if you knew the deceased well, a few words remembering a particular quality of theirs and acknowledging their place in the family and the world, for example. ‘He was such a warm and generous man, I’m sure you will all miss him terribly.’
Offer practical support
Grief can be exhausting and the bereaved person may appreciate some relief from daily tasks such as cooking, childcare, shopping or dog walking. You may like to offer to help them with paperwork or practical adjustments, as there can be a lot to sort through after a death and this can feel overwhelming.
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 perhaps engaged in a task.
It may be that it is in the weeks and months after the death that your support will be most appreciated. People often say when someone is bereaved, ‘if you need anything, just let me know’. While this is usually well-meaning, it does place the responsibility for asking for help onto the bereaved person. If you want to help, be specific in your offer. Actions very often speak louder than words and for a long time after the death and indeed the funeral, bereaved people may need and appreciate both practical help and emotional support.
Be a good listener
In terms of emotional support, listening with a patient, non-judgmental ear is key. Grief is often complex and messy and can’t be ‘fixed’; resist the urge to offer solutions, especially if you feel you have ‘been there’ yourself. Many bereaved people have expressed that they especially appreciated those friends who were willing just to be there to hear the really hard stuff; to go to the dark place with them.
Respect their way of grieving
Grief is an experience during which we tend to oscillate between the dark and the light; these days we recognise that it’s important to spend time in ‘restoration’ activities as well as ‘grief’ activities, meaning that while on some days the bereaved person will remember, reflect 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 and laugh. A good friend will support by being there for those days, too, and recognising their importance.
In the months and years following a loss, you can 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, Christmas.
One mistake people sometimes make is to stop talking about the deceased, for fear of causing upset; on the contrary, most people will be thankful for the acknowledgement that their loved one lived. As one bereaved person said to me, ‘By mentioning his name, you didn’t remind me that he died. I didn’t forget that he died. I think about him every day, all the time. By talking about him, you let me know that you think about him too, and gave me permission to talk about him and feel good about that.’ That is a great gift.
Visit our grief & loss support page if you would like further advice, and a list of helpful organisations that may be able to help someone who has suffered a loss.