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How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving

When someone you care about is grieving a death, it’s only natural to want to do everything you can to help them feel better.

Unfortunately, in a society that struggles to know how to deal with negative emotions, so many of us don’t know what to do when a family member or friend is experiencing loss.

You might be worried about saying the wrong thing, so choose to say nothing at all. You might also have unrealistic expectations of how the person should feel and how quickly they should get on with their life.

There are many things you can do or say to help, but the important thing to remember is that everyone’s experience of grief is different.

Understand grief as a process

Grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one. We are all individuals and when dealing with grief, we do it in different ways.

Someone who is grieving might want to have people around or they might prefer some privacy. Some people choose to immerse themselves in work, while others turn to spiritual or cultural practices for solace.

In addition, you might notice their appetite changes, they have trouble sleeping, feel exhausted, experience difficulty concentrating, and a range of other symptoms. There’s a broad spectrum of emotions different people feel as well, from anger and frustration to sadness, numbness, loneliness, guilt, and even relief.

If you know someone is upset, it’s a natural response to want to fix things. However, the reality is that you can’t fix their grief. Nothing you say will make a bereaved person feel better about their loss.

However, there are things you can do to provide comfort and support during such a difficult time.

Don’t know what to say to them?

When someone you care about is grieving after a loss, it can be difficult to know what to say to them. You might be afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making them feel even worse at such an emotional time. Or maybe you think there’s little you can do to make things better.

That’s perfectly understandable. However, you shouldn’t let discomfort stop you from reaching out because now, more than ever, they need your support.

It’s not crucial to have answers, give advice, or do all the right things. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there. Even simple sympathy messages show that you’re thinking of them. Your support and caring is what will help them cope with the pain and gradually begin to heal.

Things to avoid saying to a grieving person

When a person we care about is grieving, our tendency is to tiptoe around directly addressing their loss, trying to skip over it completely, or saying nothing at all. We tend to focus on helping ourselves get through the uncomfortable moment rather than simply being there for the grieving person.

Here are some tips on what not to say, and what you might say instead.

“How are you doing?” This is a well-worn phrase that tends to lead to the response of “fine” or “OK,” rather than truly communicating their feelings. It’s much better to say “It’s really tough right now for you” as this isn’t glossing over their feelings but giving them the chance to grieve fully and without judgement.

“They’re in a better place.” It’s better to be cautious than assume a person believes in heaven. It’s also a phrase that de-emphasises the pain they might be feeling. It’s much better to say “I’m sorry you’re suffering,” as this puts the focus on the person who is grieving.

“Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” When everyone is offering support it can be overwhelming and puts the responsibility on the bereaved to reach out for help. Instead, you should say, “I’ll come over to do a few loads of laundry,” or “I’ll get some groceries for you.” People tend to be more accepting of help if it’s specific rather than a wide-open offer.

Don’t push them to talk

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 might be angry outbursts, crying, laughing, screaming, expressions of guilt or regret.

Ultimately, if they don’t feel like talking, don’t push them. Remember that you are comforting them just by being there and sitting together in silence is helpful too.

Offer help with practical matters

You can show the grieving person that you care by offering practical help, such as:

  • Doing some of their housework, such as washing clothes or cleaning
  • Answering the telephone for them
  • Finding out how to clear a house when someone dies
  • Taking over some of their regular duties such as picking up the children from school
  • Bringing over pre-cooked meals that only need to be reheated

Bear in mind that they may not want you to support them in these ways and you should respect their requests.

Provide support in the long run

Your loved one will continue grieving long after the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have stopped. How long grief lasts varies from person to person, but often lasts much longer than most people expect. It’s a very individual thing. Your bereaved family member or friend may need your support for months or even years.

Your support may be required for a long time so stay in touch with them, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Let them know you are there to help, and they have a person to turn to in case of need.

Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for them. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and family milestones often reawaken grief. Always be sensitive on these occasions and let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever they need.

How to comfort a grieving child

Helping a child cope with grief can be challenging. The way children respond to death is different from adults. For example, going from crying to playing is normal. Playing is a way of coping with their feelings. It’s also normal for kids to get angry, feel sad, get anxious, and also act younger than they are.

It’s good for children to express whatever emotions they’re feeling. Reading one of the many good children’s books about death might be a good way to start a conversation. Other helpful outlets include drawing pictures, building a scrapbook, looking at photo albums, or telling stories.

Knowing how a child will react to death is hard. Don’t volunteer too much information. Instead, try to answer their questions. When discussing death, never use euphemisms as these can interfere with their opportunity to develop healthy coping skills they might need in the future.

Help them seek professional support

Grief is very painful but most people find that they gradually find ways to learn to live with their loss when they’ve got the support of their family and friends.

However, sometimes, there may be a need for professional support. For example, the circumstances of the death may have been particularly distressing, or the grief may be particularly acute or complicated. This is especially important if, over time, they seem to be struggling to manage their day-to-day life.

Thankfully, there are many resources that will be beneficial and supportive. See our extensive list of contacts for bereavement help and advice.