How To Support a Grieving Loved One
It can be hard to know the best way to console a friend or relative who is grieving. If it seems that nothing you can do or say can help, don’t give up. You can’t take the pain away or bear the burden yourself, but your presence is more important than you may realize. Accept that you can’t fix the situation or make your friend or relative feel better. Instead, just be present and offer hope and a positive outlook toward the future. Recognize that grief is a gradual process and that you may not know how to support a grieving loved one. Read on for some suggestions.
Small small gestures—sending a card or flowers, delivering a meal, helping out with laundry or shopping, or making a regular date to listen and offer support—can be a huge source of comfort to a person who is grieving.
When a death occurs, family members and close friends are often flooded with support. There tends to be an abundance of flowers, gifts, meals, and other kind gestures. This can be overwhelming and create a whirlwind for your loved one. Instead of jumping right away to try to support your friend or relative, let them know you are there and then offer to help once the hype has died down.
When they start to process their loss and deal with their grief, they will need your support more than they realize.
It may be hard to know what to say to a grieving friend or how to act around a bereaved relative. Here are some things to do and things to avoid when supporting a grieving loved one.
It can be challenging to know what to say to someone who is grieving. The fear of saying the wrong thing could make you avoid trying to help, but there is no one particular way to help someone through grief. By being open, compassionate, and willing to help, your presence will offer support.
Don’t be afraid to mention the deceased. It won’t make your friend any sadder, although it may prompt tears. It’s terrible to feel that someone you love must forever be expunged from memory and conversation. Saying how much you’ll miss the person is much better than the perfunctory, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Check in on them.
Make an effort to check in with your friend or relative, even if it is a quick phone call, a card, or an invitation to grab a coffee together. You might be surprised how much your check-ins mean to a friend who is grieving. Call to express your sympathy.
Try to steer clear of such phrases as “It’s God’s will” or “It’s for the best” unless the bereaved person says this first. Your friend or relative may need you even more after the first few weeks and months, when other people may have stopped calling. Check in every now and then just to say hello (you may find it helpful to put reminders on your calendar). Most bereaved people find it difficult to reach out and need others to take the initiative.
Additionally, check in on your loved one’s self-care, such as how they are sleeping and if they are getting enough to eat. Venture into how they are feeling emotionally and listen with compassion and care. Remember, you don’t have to fix anything — there is nothing you can do to make your friend’s pain go away — but your presence and compassion can make a world of difference.
People who have gone through grieving often remember that it is the person who offered reassuring hope, the certainty that things will get better, who helped them make the gradual passage from pain to a renewed sense of life. Be careful, though, about being too glib, as doing so may make the bereaved person feel even more isolated. Rather, say something like: “You will grieve for as long as you need to, but you are a strong person and will find your way through this.” This remark both acknowledges that there is no quick and easy solution and also affirms your confidence that things will improve.
Don’t just ask if you can “do anything.” That transfers the burden to the bereaved, and he or she may be reluctant to make a request (or even know what he/she needs). Instead, be specific when offering help. Bring dinner over, pass on information about funeral arrangements, or answer the phone. Pitch in to clean up the kitchen or pick up groceries. Sometimes it is helpful just to bring over a board game or deck of cards to help your friend or relative divert their attention, if only for a short time.
Often people are hesitant about asking questions of a friend who is grieving, for fear of upsetting them or saying the wrong thing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, as it allows your friend or relative to talk about their loved one openly. If you’re not sure what to ask, some grief discussion questions can help guide the way.
Listen more than you speak.
A sympathetic ear is a wonderful thing. A loved one who listens even when the same story is told with little variation is even better. Often, people work through grief and trauma by telling their stories over and over. Unless you are asked for your advice, don’t be quick to offer it. Frequently, those who are grieving really wish others would just listen. It’s your understanding—not your advice—that is most sorely needed.
Be willing to sit in silence.
Grief ushers in a variety of strong emotions, and sometimes a grieving person needs to sit in silence to regain a semblance of peace. It can be difficult to sit in silence, particularly when you know your friend or relative is struggling with emotional pain. Resist the urge to fill the silence and make an effort to allow it space. Your presence is enough. By being there for your friend, you are showing your love and support, even if you sit quietly together and don’t say a word. Your silent presence may be more therapeutic than you realize.
Let them cry.
One of the most important aspects of the grieving process is the ability to express deep sadness and allow oneself to cry. Letting your friend cry shows them that you understand that crying is an important part of the grief process. Often when people are discouraged from crying it is a reflection of the discomfort others have about witnessing that amount of pain. Think about the tears as a necessary part of the healing journey.
Like the helpful hints to support your grieving friend, there are also several reminders about behaviors to avoid. It is easy to stumble into non-helpful behaviors even when you have the best of intentions. Here are some thoughts on what not to do when someone is grieving and ways to handle situations that may feel difficult to navigate.
Don’t ask “How are you doing?”.
The answer is obvious—”not good”—and because it’s the same greeting you would offer anyone, it doesn’t acknowledge that your friend has suffered a devastating loss. Instead try, “How are you feeling today?”.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the deceased person.
Sometimes there is a misconception that talking about the deceased loved one will upset the bereaved. Most grieving people do want to talk about and think about their loved one who has passed and doing so, helps facilitate the healing process.
Ask questions about the lost loved one, like what were their hobbies? Ask about the memories that your friend or relative treasures. It may be that you are one of the few people your loved one feels free to talk about their loss with. Encourage the conversation and memories about the deceased and just listen.
Don’t try to fix them.
Grief is not a problem to be fixed. Your grieving loved one only needs your loving support and presence. Attempting to do or say something to fix the situation will only leave you and your friend feeling more powerless. Grief can’t be remedied by anything but time, support, and compassion. If your friend feels you are trying to fix them or their feelings, they may start to view themselves as a problem, which may reduce their comfort in confiding in you and expressing their feelings openly.
Don’t diminish their grief.
Acknowledging grief is one of the most basic and powerful ways you can show your support. People may unintentionally diminish a loved one’s grief by saying, “You’ll get over it soon,” and “You’ll be fine.” The best way to honor someone’s true feelings and grief experiences is to ask how they feel and simply listen. Trying to decrease someone’s pain by minimizing it only makes them feel disconnected.
Don’t draw comparisons to their experience unless appropriate.
To identify with their pain and offer support, you might be tempted to make comparisons about losses in your life. However, doing so is unnecessary and can often lead to frustration and anger for the person experiencing grief.
While it may be true that you have also experienced loss, use discretion when interjecting your experience. Only share and draw comparisons if the loss is very similar to that of your loved one. Drawing inappropriate comparisons about grief can result in your friend or relative feeling minimized.
Don’t comment on their appearance.
It may seem fairly benign to make a statement about a grieving person’s appearance, but these comments can be damaging. Refrain from telling your grieving loved ones that they look tired, depressed, or sad. Even comments that are meant as complimentary may make your friend feel as though they are being judged.
Commenting on physical appearance is a common practice, but during your friend’s grief, even the most well-intentioned remark can feel harmful. Passing comments about a bereaved person looking drained only reinforces what they are feeling inside. Instead, offer your support and ask how you can help.
Don’t push your faith on them, if they don’t share it.
When a friend or loved one is grieving, it can feel compelling to share your religious or spiritual beliefs with them as a means of helping them feel better. Even though you want your friend to feel peace and comfort, resist the urge to talk about your faith with them. If your friend or relative asks questions about your beliefs, share openly, but without pressing the matter.
Platitudes should be at the top of the list of things to avoid saying to someone grieving. Phrases such as, “They’re better off now,” and, “She wouldn’t want you to be sad,” should be banned from all conversations with the bereaved. These common statements are surely meant with good intentions, but only placate and minimize the feelings of the person who is grieving. Other things to avoid when supporting a grieving loved one:
- Don’t react to bad news sensationally.
- Don’t tag grieving relatives in photos of the deceased online.
- Don’t put a positive spin on everything. Try to be as realistic as possible.
- Don’t wait to reach out. You never know what someone needs.
The best thing you can offer someone who is grieving is a hug, a listening ear, and a compassionate presence. No combination of words or actions will make your loved one’s pain vanish. Don’t worry about saying the right thing because honestly, there is no right thing to say. Grief can be all-consuming. Just being present and offering love and kindness is all that matters.