The death of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult experiences. The bereaved struggle with many intense and frightening emotions, including depression, anger, and guilt. Often, he or she feels isolated and alone in his or her grief, but having someone to lean on can help him or her through the grieving process.
Don’t let discomfort prevent you from reaching out to someone grieving. Now, more than ever, your support is needed. You might not know exactly what to say or what to do, but that’s okay. You don’t need to have answers or give advice. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there; your support and caring presence will help him or her cope with the pain and begin to heal.
Understanding the grieving process
The better your understanding of grief and how it is healed, the better equipped you’ll be to help a bereaved friend or family member:
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages. It can be an emotional rollercoaster, with unpredictable highs, lows, and setbacks. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling the bereaved what he or she “should” be feeling or doing.
- Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair, and fear are common. A grieving person may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at loved ones, or cry for hours on end. The bereaved need reassurance that what he or she feels is normal. Don’t judge them or take his or her grief reactions personally.
- There is no set timetable for grieving. For many people, recovery after bereavement takes 18 to 24 months, but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter. Don’t pressure the bereaved to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow the healing process.
What to say to someone who has lost a loved one
It is common to feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who is grieving. Many people do not know what to say or do. The following are suggestions to use as a guide.
- Acknowledge the situation. Example: "I heard that your_____ died." Use the word "died" That will show that you are more open to talk about how the person really feels.
- Express your concern. Example: "I'm sorry to hear that this happened to you."
- Be genuine in your communication and don't hide your feelings. Example: "I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care."
- Offer your support. Example: "Tell me what I can do for you."
- Ask how he or she feels, and don't assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day.
Source: American Cancer Society
Almost everyone worries about what to say to a grieving person. But knowing how to listen is much more important. Oftentimes, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or mentioning the deceased person, but the bereaved need to feel that his or her loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and his or her loved one won’t be forgotten.
While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let the bereaved know he or she has permission to talk about the loss. Talk candidly about the person who died and don’t steer away from the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions – without being nosy – that invite the grieving person to openly express his or her feelings. Try simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?”
Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Let the grieving person know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with him or her over how he or she should or shouldn’t feel. The bereaved should feel free to express his or her feelings without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Let the bereaved talk about how his or her loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.
Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what he or she is feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. However, don’t give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to his or hers.
Comments to avoid when comforting the bereaved
- "I know how you feel." One can never know how another may feel. You could, instead, ask your friend to tell you how he or she feels.
- "It's part of God's plan." This phrase can make people angry and they often respond with, "What plan? Nobody told me about any plan."
- "Look at what you have to be thankful for." They know they have things to be thankful for, but right now they are not important.
- "He's in a better place now." The bereaved may or may not believe this. Keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked.
- "This is behind you now; it's time to get on with your life." Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to getting on with because they feel this means "forgetting" his or her loved one. In addition, moving on is easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
- Statements that begin with "You should" or "You will." These statements are too directive. Instead you could begin your comments with: "Have you thought about. . ." or "You might. . ."
Source: American Hospice Foundation
It is difficult for many grieving people to ask for help. They might feel guilty about receiving so much attention, fear being a burden, or be too depressed to reach out. You can make it easier for them by making specific suggestions – such as, “I’m going to the market this afternoon. What can I bring you from there?” or “I’ve made beef stew for dinner. When can I come by and bring you some?”
Consistency is very helpful, if you can manage it – being there for as long as it takes. This helps the grieving person look forward to your attentiveness without having to make the additional effort of asking again and again. You can also convey an open invitation by saying, “Let me know what I can do,” which may make a grieving person feel more comfortable about asking for help. But keep in mind that the bereaved may not have the energy or motivation to call you when he or she needs something, so it’s better if you take the initiative to check in.
Be the one who takes the initiative
There are many practical ways you can help a grieving person. You can offer to:
- Shop for groceries or run errands
- Drop off a casserole or other type of food
- Help with funeral arrangements
- Stay in his or her home to take phone calls and receive guests
- Help with insurance forms or bills
- Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
- Watch his or her children or pick them up from school
- Drive him or her wherever he or she needs to go
- Look after his or her pets
- Go with them to a support group meeting
- Accompany them on a walk
- Take them to lunch or a movie
- Share an enjoyable activity (game, puzzle, art project)
Grieving continues long after the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have stopped. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person. But in general, grief lasts much longer than most people expect. Your bereaved friend or family member may need your support for months or even years.
Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with the grieving person, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Your support is more valuable than ever once the funeral is over, the other mourners are gone, and the initial shock of the loss has worn off.
Don’t make assumptions based on outward appearances. The bereaved person may look fine on the outside, while inside he or she is suffering. Avoid saying things like “You are so strong” or “You look so well.” This puts pressure on the person to keep up appearances and to hide his or her true feelings.
The pain of bereavement may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same. You don’t “get over” the death of a loved one. The bereaved person may learn to accept the loss. The pain may lessen in intensity over time, but the sadness may never completely go away.
Offer extra support on special days. Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend or family member. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever he or she needs.
It’s common for a grieving person to feel depressed, confused, disconnected from others, or like he or she is going crazy. But if the bereaved person’s symptoms don’t gradually start to fade – or they get worse with time – this may be a sign that normal grief has evolved into a more serious problem, such as clinical depression.
Encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if you observe any of the following warning signs after the initial grieving period – especially if it’s been over two months since the death.
It can be tricky to bring up your concerns to the bereaved person as you don’t want to perceived as invasive. Instead of telling the person what to do, try stating your own feelings: “I am troubled by the fact that you aren’t sleeping – perhaps you should look into getting help.”
Take talk of suicide very seriously
If a grieving friend or family member talks about suicide, get professional help right away. IN A LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCY, CALL 911.
To learn more about the warning signs, see Suicide Prevention: Spotting the Signs and Helping a Suicidal Person.
Even very young children feel the pain of bereavement, but they learn how to express his or her grief by watching the adults around them. After a loss – particularly of a sibling or parent – children need support, stability, and honesty. They may also need extra reassurance that they will be cared for and kept safe. As an adult, you can support children through the grieving process by demonstrating that it’s okay to be sad and helping them make sense of the loss.
Answer any questions the child may have as truthfully as you can. Use very simple, honest, and concrete terms when explaining death to a child. Children—especially young children—may blame themselves for what happened and the truth helps them see they are not at fault.
Open communication will smooth the way for a child to express distressing feelings. Because children often express themselves through stories, games, and artwork, encourage this self-expression, and look for clues in those activities about how they are coping.
How to help a grieving child:
- Allow your child, however young, to attend the funeral if he or she wants to.
- Convey your spiritual values about life and death, or pray with your child.
- Meet regularly as a family to find out how everyone is coping.
- Help children find ways to symbolize and memorialize the deceased person.
- Keep your child’s daily routine as normal as possible.
- Pay attention to the way a child plays; this can be one of a child’s primary ways of communicating.
What not to do:
- Don’t force a child to publicly mourn if he or she doesn’t want to.
- Don’t give false or confusing messages, like “Grandma is sleeping now.”
- Don’t tell a child to stop crying because others might get upset.
- Don’t try to shield a child from the loss. Children pick up on much more than adults realize. Including them in the grieving process will help them adapt and heal.
- Don’t stifle your tears; by crying in front of your child, you send the message that it’s okay for him or her to express feelings, too.
- Don't turn your child into your personal confidante. Rely on another adult or a support group instead.
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Resources & References
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Resources for public assistance, social services, and other health and human services.
General information on helping the bereaved
Grief: How to Support the Bereaved – Learn how to help in the first few days, how to listen with compassion, comments to avoid, and practical help you can give. (Better Health Channel)
How to Help a Grieving Person – Series of articles on bereavement support, including how to help parents, families, friends, and co-workers. (Journey of Hearts)
Writing a Condolence Note – Outlines practical tips on how to write a sensitive and helpful condolence note to someone in grief. (American Hospice Foundation)
Helping a grieving parent
Helping a Grieving Parent – Offers advice on how to comfort your surviving parent, while also dealing with your own grief. (American Hospice Foundation)
When an Employee is Grieving the Death of a Child – Helpful article on how employers can help a grieving employee who has lost a child. (The Compassionate Friends)
When a Coworker is Grieving the Death of a Child – Article covers how co-workers can help when someone they work with has lost a child. (The Compassionate Friends)
Helping a grieving child
How to Help Your Child Deal With Death – Provides clear and simple suggestions for helping children understand and cope with the death of a loved one. (Nemours Foundation)
Caring for Surviving Children – Advice for parents on how to care for his or her surviving children after the death of another child in the family. (The Compassionate Friends)
Guidelines for Parents to Help his or her Children Through Grief – Tips on how parents can help and support children who are grieving. (American Hospice Foundation)
The Grieving Teen – Describes how teens grieve and how to help through peer counseling and grief support groups. (American Hospice Foundation)