You may be afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making your loved one feel even worse at such a difficult time. Or maybe you think there’s little you can do to make things better. That’s understandable. But don’t let discomfort prevent you from reaching out to someone who is grieving. Now, more than ever, your loved one needs your support. You don’t need to have answers or give advice or say and do all the right things. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there. It’s your support and caring presence that will help your loved one cope with the pain and gradually begin to heal.
Don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out.
Let your grieving loved one know that you’re there to listen.
Understand that everyone grieves differently and for different lengths of time.
Offer to help in practical ways.
Maintain your support after the funeral.
Understand 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 your loved one what they “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. Your loved one needs reassurance that what they feel is normal. Don’t judge them or take their 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 your loved one to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow the healing process.
While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person, it’s actually more important to listen. Oftentimes, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or change the subject when the deceased person is mentioned. Or, knowing there’s nothing they can say to make it better, they try to avoid the grieving person altogether.
But the bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and their loved one won’t be forgotten. One day they may want to cry on your shoulder, on another day they may want to vent, or sit in silence, or share memories. By being present and listening compassionately, you can take your cues from the grieving person. Simply being there and listening to them can be a huge source of comfort and healing.
While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let your grieving friend or loved one know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk about their loss. Talk candidly about the person who died and don’t steer away from the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. And when it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions—without being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express their feelings. By simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?” you’re letting your loved one know that you’re available to listen.
You can also:
Acknowledge the situation. For example, you could say something as simple as: “I heard that your father died.” By using the word “died” you’ll show that you’re more open to talk about how the grieving person really feels.
Express your concern. For example: “I’m sorry to hear that this happened to you.”
Let the bereaved talk about how their 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. By listening patiently and compassionately, you’re helping your loved one heal.
Ask how your loved one feels.
The emotions of grief can change rapidly so don’t assume you know how the bereaved person feels at any given time. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. Remember, though, that grief is an intensely individual experience. No two people experience it exactly the same way, so don’t claim to “know” what the person is feeling or compare your grief to theirs. Again, put the emphasis on listening instead, and ask your loved one to tell you how they’re feeling.
Accept your loved one’s 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 them over how they should or shouldn’t feel. Grief is a highly emotional experience, so the bereaved need to feel free to express their feelings—no matter how irrational—without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
Be genuine in your communication.
Don’t try to minimize their loss, provide simplistic solutions, or offer unsolicited advice. It’s far better to just listen to your loved one or simply admit: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
Be willing to sit in silence.
Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. Often, comfort for them comes from simply being in your company. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Offer your support.
Ask what you can do for the grieving person. Offer to help with a specific task, such as helping with funeral arrangements, or just be there to hang out with or as a shoulder to cry on.