Grief is a universal emotion that we all understand. The pain of a significant loss and how it feels is unique for each person. Friends may want to help but can be uncertain about the best way to be supportive. You may be fearful about unintentionally doing something harmful. Researchers found that most people can recover well from a loss if they have appropriate social support and are otherwise healthy.1 Just knowing people who care are there at a time of loss can make a huge difference for someone who is grieving.
15 Tips for How to Help a Grieving Friend
The support and comfort of friends and family can be invaluable to someone who is grieving. Sometimes grief-related emotions intensify or become more frequent, impacting the quality of life and relationships.
Outside of work done with a professional, here are 15 ways to help a grieving friend:
1. Be a Good Listener
Sometimes people in uncomfortable situations talk a lot. You may want to say things to help a friend but are uncertain what to say or if it will help. Sometimes all grieving people need is to have a good listener. Just having the chance to have someone listen without comments, advice, or judgment can soothe feelings of grief and can be a source of comfort.
2. Help With Concrete Tasks
People often ask what they can do to help, and the grieving person cannot respond. In these cases, offering support with everyday tasks can be very meaningful and are gestures that provide comfort.
These tasks can include:
- bringing food
- helping with the kids
- walking the dog
- cleaning the house
3. Consider How Best to Be In Contact
“Receiving text messages may be easier for someone to manage than returning calls. Dropping in to see them in person may be welcome for some but may be an inconvenience for others. It is worth asking the person what they prefer rather than making assumptions.”3
4. Learn About the Stages of Grief
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed an outline of a 5 step model of the stages of grief. They include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She was clear that everyone’s grief is unique. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. The length of time people grieve varies between individuals. People may not go through all five stages, possibly skip a stage, or revisit one stage more than once or even simultaneously.
In recent years, new grief models have been developed based on this initial 5-stage model. The 7 stages of grief include shock with denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, and the upward turn. People often fluctuate between these stages.
5. Encourage Them to Get More Help
Encourage a grieving person to seek additional help if they seem paralyzed by their grief or have ongoing debilitating depression. People amid grief may be battling depression and unable to ask for help without support from others. Encourage them to seek professional mental health support if their struggle continues. Showing acceptance and encouragement for professional help might be the validation they need.
6. Be Open to Talk About the Deceased
“Don’t be afraid to mention the deceased. It won’t make your friend any sadder, although it may prompt tears.”4 They will need to talk about the person that has died, and knowing that you will be there to listen helps to make the process easier.
7. Anticipate Difficult Times & Reach Out
Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries will bring back a flood of memories and high emotions (sometimes referred to as the anniversary effect). Reach out to your friend on these occasions and be prepared to offer support.
8. Be Genuine & Don’t Hide Your Feelings
Rather than hold back your feelings when you are unsure what to say, at least show them they’re on your mind by saying, “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care.”5 Don’t forget to express your concern too by saying, “I’m so sorry to hear that happened to you.”5
9. Be a Non-Judgmental Observer
No matter how your friend copes with their grief, they may still need time to heal. People have to find a new routine and will need to try many things to figure out what works for them. Let them know you will be there every step of the way, lending support, comfort, and understanding.
10. Stress the Importance of Social Support
“Some studies show that both the quantity and quality of social support may influence well-being for grievers. Bereaved people who have more frequent contact with family and friends tend to report better quality of life, whether this support comes from technology (email and internet) or in person.”6
11. Be Empathetic
Suppose you do not feel comfortable asking questions or starting a conversation with the grieving person. In that case, you can send a text message with something simple like, “I know I can’t possibly know what you’re going through, but I’m here for you. I’ve been thinking about you.”7 These small gestures help someone feel less alone.
12. Initiate the Conversation.
Try to find a quiet time and place to allow a friend to talk with you about the loss. You can initiate the conversation with questions such as:
- How have things been since the death?
- What has been the most challenging aspect?
- What seems to help?
- What do you need from me that can offer immediate help?
13. Be Willing to Sit in Silence
Silently sitting with someone who is grieving is an important means of showing support. Don’t underestimate how important your presence can be when someone is struggling with being alone. People that are grieving often don’t want to talk to others or respond to questions or comments they are not prepared to answer.
There are other silent gestures you can make to display your compassion and support. You could offer eye contact, put your hand on their shoulder, give them a hug, or hold their hands. These simple, compassionate gestures can say more than words and offer much needed comfort to a person who is grieving.
14. Keep Showing Up & Providing Ongoing Support
Many times when a person dies there are a lot of people who rush to be there to provide support to the grieving family. After the first few weeks people tend to disappear, but the bereaved family’s need for support does not diminish for a long time. This is often the time they feel most alone and grief-related symptoms may get worse.
There are many ways to reach out to loved ones who are grieving. Examples include sending a card, a letter, a text, or an email letting them know you are thinking of them. It is not a good idea to simply drop in unannounced, but you can arrange a time to get together with a grieving friend or family member. Simple acts like bringing groceries, offering to babysit, taking them out for a meal, or escaping to a movie can mean a lot. The message you want to give is, “I am here and will be available to support you now and in the future.” Ask if you can continue to check in with them to offer any needed help or company.
15. Set Up an “Emergency” System
Sometimes it is hard to reach out for help in the midst of grief. Creating an agreed upon “emergency call system” can make it easier for them to ask for help when they feel alone, sad, or overwhelmed. It can be simple code words like “help,” “SOS,” or “need a friend.” These calls for support can be made through text, a phone call, or a quick email. You both should have an agreement about how and when you will respond so there are shared expectations about what will happen next.
13 Things That Don’t Help Someone Who Is Grieving
When someone you care about is grieving, you may feel helpless or unsure about what can be done to offer them help. Emotions are raw, and finding the right words or actions may feel uncertain. In these moments of uncertainty, people may sometimes say or do things in good faith that ultimately are not helpful.
Here are 13 things that you should not do when trying to help someone who is grieving:
1. Don’t Ask, “How Are You?”
The answer is obvious – “not good” – and because it is 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?”8
2. Don’t Diminish Their Grief
Acknowledging grief is one of the most basic and powerful ways to show your support. People may unintentionally diminish a loved one’s suffering by saying, “You’ll get over it soon,” and “You’ll be fine.”9
3. Don’t Assume They Grieve the Same As You
In your attempt to help someone who is grieving, you may take for granted that they don’t grieve as you would. Grief is a personal and unique experience for every individual. It may not be correct to assume what you experienced is the same as what they are feeling.
4. Don’t Force Your Religious Beliefs
People have very different beliefs regarding their faith and spirituality. At times of significant loss, religion can offer powerful tools to help cope. Rather than imposing your beliefs, find out their religious beliefs and encourage your friend to tap into them as a source of strength and support.
5. Don’t Talk About Their Appearance
When people are grieving, it isn’t easy to engage in self-care. Just getting out of bed can feel overwhelming. Commenting about their appearance will sound hurtful and insensitive.
6. Don’t Tell Them, “It Is Time to Move On With Your Life”
Sometimes people are afraid to move forward for fear of leaving behind memories associated with the deceased person. They need time to determine the next step and how to take it. They must do it in their own time frame. Rushing a friend before they are ready may cause resentment towards you.
7. Don’t Give an Attitude
There is no need to feel upset or annoyed that someone is taking a while to grieve. The Hospice Foundation of America recommends, “Check that you don’t have unrealistic expectations for your friend to “move on” in a predetermined schedule.”10
8. Don’t Use Directive Statements
Statements that begin with “You should” or “you will” may be too directive and make the grieving person feel pressured. Instead, you could start your comments with “Have you thought about…” or “you might try….”11
9. Don’t Assume They Embrace Your Beliefs
Sharing beliefs such as, “It’s part of God’s plan” can be exceedingly hurtful to someone with no specific religious beliefs.
10. Don’t Wait to Let Them Know You Care
There is no need to wait to tell a grieving person you heard about their loss and share what you can do to help. You can at least let them know you are thinking of them if you are uncertain about what tangible help you can offer.
11. Don’t Avoid Them
People may feel uncomfortable being around someone who has just lost a loved one because they may not know what to say or do to help them. However, loneliness is a common state of being for someone who is grieving and the worst thing you can do is to enhance their feelings of being alone by avoiding them.
12. Don’t Try to Fix Them
Grief isn’t something you can fix like a leaky faucet. Don’t assume that what makes you feel better will make the grieving person feel better. Grief is a natural reaction to death and loss, and people grieve in their own unique ways and time frames. Allow people the time they need to begin to heal without trying to speed up their healing process.
13. Don’t Tag Grieving Relatives in Photos of the Deceased Online
Many people prefer to grieve privately and they may not want social media reminders about the loss of their loved one. Consider boundaries and the impact of the photos on other loved ones who had close relationships with the person who has died.
You also don’t know who is aware of the death. You don’t want them to find out by reading it on Facebook or Instagram. Family members may perceive posting on social media as disrespectful or unkind. It may cause people reading the post to reach out to the tagged grieving relatives at a time they are not prepared to respond. If you want to reach out to the bereaved, do it privately, at least at first.
Gifts to Give Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One
When someone has lost a loved one they often feel sad, overwhelmed, and alone. There are a variety of gifts that can help and comfort them, varying from practical gifts to gifts that honor the memory of their deceased loved one.
Here are several ideas for gifts to give someone who is grieving:
- People who are grieving often have trouble engaging in self care. Bringing cooked meals or groceries can be a very helpful gesture.
- Offering gift cards that can help with cleaning, groceries, gas, or restaurants can also make it easier to help with self care and chores.
- Concrete acts like offering to drive friends somewhere, help care for pets, or babysit their kids, can also make them feel comforted, supported, and cared for.
- Journals can be very useful gifts. Writing emotions down throughout the grief process can help people clarify their feelings. Also putting thoughts and feelings on paper can reduce their intensity. Some people use journals as a way of communicating with the person that has died.
- A warm blanket can be a caring gift for someone who is grieving. People who are grieving spend more time at home and the blanket sends a message that you want them to be warm and comfortable.
- When people are grieving, regular routines may fall by the wayside. Physical activity can help with grief. A gift certificate for yoga classes or to exercise classes can be a welcome gift. It also offers a reason to leave home, and it can provide much needed structure.
When to Seek Professional Help
When symptoms of grief continue to be disabling and the intensity and frequency of the symptoms increase, it’s time to consider getting help from a mental health professional.
The Hospice Foundation of America advises, “Thoughts of suicide, excessive drinking, or excessive use of dependence upon prescription medications or illegal drugs are signs you should get immediate help.”12
If your friend’s grief appears unending and worsens, it can evolve into complicated grief or Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (PCBD). If they continue to be unable to function, encourage them to reach out to a grief counselor or find a grief support group. They can find a therapist in their area by asking their primary care provider or by searching an online therapist directory.
Knowing how to lend comfort to a grieving friend can be challenging. The most important message you can give them is that you are there to listen. You can’t take their pain away, but there are things you can do to help them face the days ahead. Keep communication open to understand how to help them. Your gestures may not feel fruitful at the time, but they may make a more considerable difference than you can imagine.