If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you know that grief is complex. It doesn’t follow a timeline, rules, or sequential stages. Instead, grief ebbs and flows, sometimes surprising you, coming up in unexpected ways, leaving you feeling lost and alone. The emptiness and grief can be magnified by well-intentioned friends and family who struggle to interact with their grieving loved one.Too often when we have a friend or loved one experiencing loss, it’s difficult to know what to say and how to interact with them. Regardless of the loss, whether an immediate family member, a friend, an acquaintance, or a pet, those who care want to show support but may feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped to help.
We often worry about saying the wrong thing, so we end up saying nothing at all or resorting to empty platitudes. “I’m sorry for your loss,” may express our sentiment, but the words often sound hollow.
The reality of grief.
The inescapable truth is that death often feels uncomfortable. Whether you are the person walking through the loss or you are there to offer support, death brings up a lot of feelings that we struggle with. It can be difficult to know how to navigate these feelings, and the easiest answer is often avoidance.
Avoiding these feelings, however, only makes things harder. Instead, we can learn how to recognize and accept our own feelings about grief and death and show up to support the people we love when they experience loss. Although it’s difficult and you can’t relieve their pain, just being present can mean more than you can imagine.
Here are ten things you can do when someone is grieving.
Let it be difficult.
It’s okay that it feels difficult and uncomfortable for you. Rather than focusing on your own discomfort, accept that you’re human and don’t need to know just the right thing to say. You don’t need to fill awkward silences with conversation or have the answers to make it better. There are none. Instead, you can simply be yourself and enter into the difficult place with your friend or loved one.
This allows the person to feel whatever they need to feel. No matter how hard it is, or how uncomfortable, they can simply feel the difficult, complex feelings of loss. Being present with them in that place is a gift.
Let go of finding the perfect time.
There is no perfect time to address grief or offer support to someone who is grieving. Whether you are the first person to engage with someone after a loss or waited weeks, love and support are always welcome. It’s never too late to offer support and show that you care.
Support and love are needed throughout the grieving process. Often people get a wave of support right after someone dies, but then the support fizzles out and people go back to their own busy lives. If you can, try to offer support and connection more than once. Don’t worry about your timing. There is no wrong time to offer your support.
Don’t redirect the conversation.
If someone shares with you about their loss, don’t hurry to change the subject. It may be uncomfortable, and you may not know what to say. That’s okay. Simply be present with them as they share.
Changing the subject doesn’t make them forget their pain, and it may make them feel even more alone. Allow them to talk about what they want when they want, and respect what they choose to share. This shows that you care and affirms that their feelings are natural.
Although you may have experienced your own loss and grief, don’t be tempted to say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Refrain from sharing your own experience with loss. This minimizes the grieving person’s own experience and turns the focus on you, rather than on the bereaved.
Listen and ask questions.
Attentive listening and engagement go a long way in making someone feel seen and understood. If someone is sharing a story about their loss, be an attentive listener by maintaining eye contact and having open body language that shows you are engaged. Avoid doing other things when they are talking. Instead, sit quietly and listen to what they share.
It can also be helpful to ask gentle follow-up questions. If they share a story about how their dad used to be a good cook, you can ask questions like, “What was your favorite dish your dad made?”
This shows you are engaged, and it gives them a chance to share positive memories of their loved one. If they’re hesitant to share, however, don’t press or interrogate. Let them tell their stories at their own pace and in their own way.
Offer advice if you are asked for it, but otherwise, it’s best to refrain. Simply listening can be the greatest gift and your understanding the most needed and appreciated.
Say their loved one’s name.
Sometimes people feel strange mentioning the person who died by name. People worry that bringing it up may make things harder. When someone walks through grief, they don’t forget their loved one’s name. In fact, they often wish people would mention them and talk about them. It can be a way to honor the person who died and show that they mattered in this world.
Mentioning the deceased person by name shows that you remember. In most cases it won’t make your loved one’s pain worse, but they may shed some tears. If it seems hard for your loved one, you can ask them and honor whatever feels most comfortable for them.
Continue to connect.
Time may move forward, but that doesn’t mean your friend is done grieving. Be intentional about continuing to connect with the person walking through loss. As people go on with their lives, it can feel quite lonely. Little check-ins, calls, texts, and getting together can make a big difference. Whether it’s weeks, months, or even a year down the road, keep connecting.
Offer space when needed.
During the grieving process, some people need space. They need time without feeling the pressure to put on a happy face and talk to people. It’s helpful to offer space without judgment. Consider how to give them space for periods of time while still showing them you care. Some good ideas are:
- Text messages.
- Cards in the mail.
- Dropping off a meal on their doorstep.
- Having a meal delivered.
- Send a gift card for grocery or meal delivery.
Whatever you do, show them you are there without pressuring them to engage with you. Giving them the space they need while showing them you care. These gestures of love can make a big difference for your grieving friend.
Don’t worry about getting it right.
You’re not going to get it right all the time. There is no right way to grieve and there is no right way to provide support. Instead, be committed to continue supporting your friend, even if you feel that you’ve made a mistake. If you say something that feels wrong or upsets your loved one, apologize and move on. Let them know that you’ll continue to be there for them in the way they need you most.
Remember important dates.
Dates hold a lot of meaning for people. For those walking through grief, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays can be particularly hard. Significant dates often become a symbol of the loss, rather than fond memories of their loved one. Be intentional about talking with your friend or family member on these days. Some things you can say include:
- “I know today was your mom’s birthday, do you want to get a cupcake and talk?”
- “I remember how much your aunt loved decorating for Christmas. How are you doing?”
- “Can I come over today? I would love to be there with you for your daughter’s birthday. You don’t have to do it alone.”
Be thoughtful about what would help someone who is walking through important days in their grief. Even if it’s been years, these days can still be difficult to experience alone. Be present for your loved one. If you worry about forgetting, set reminders in your phone to check in on birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.
Although offering to pray for someone is easy to do, even with the best intentions we may forget. Instead of saying, “I’ll pray for you,” and possibly forgetting to do it, try simply praying at that moment. If you’re with your friend at the time, pray silently if they’re not comfortable with prayer.
No matter how short, long, eloquent, or uncertain, God hears all your prayers. Simply talk to God on behalf of your loved one. This can be the most powerful thing you do, even if your loved one never knows you’ve done it.
Support is available.
If your loved one is struggling and you think they would benefit from counseling, consider learning more about the services offered. A counselor can support your loved one as they walk through this difficult season.
By initiating a gentle conversation about the benefits of grief counseling, you can support your loved one on their healing journey. Showing your support by offering to bring them in or come with them to counseling may be the encouragement they need to get started.
The counselors in our office are trained to help grieving clients find their way through their grief to a place of hope and healing. Don’t hesitate to call for more information.
“Grief”, Courtesy of Karolina Grabowska, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Comfort”, Courtesy of Liza Summer, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Consolation”, Courtesy of Pavel Danilyuk, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of National Cancer Institute, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.