How to Support Someone Who Is Grieving (…even if you are grieving)

As a hospice grief counselor, I would like to share with you some thoughts regarding how you can support someone whose loved one has died. Lack of information regarding how to care for a grieving person is common in our culture. Many people prefer to avoid talking about grief; however, you may be surprised to know that offering effective support to your grieving friend is much easier than you might think. These are some very simple guidelines: 

Recognize and respect your own limits. Everyone has differing levels of availability in helping a grieving person. Knowing and respecting your limits is especially helpful if you are grieving over your own losses. Recognize your limits and don’t go beyond them. Be gentle with yourself. You may be able to only make a phone call, or send a condolence card. If you don’t feel up to it, forcing yourself to make a personal visit may not help your grieving friend. She or he may sense that you are not totally present, and your visit may not result in the support you hoped for. It’s okay to explain to your friend that you are grieving and therefore not as available as you would like to be.

Understand the grieving process. A grieving person will often experience many intense and frightening experiences including despair, anger, guilt, and fear. He may be very forgetful, and become easily exhausted doing the simplest tasks. She may cry for hours, or withdraw. Some may yell at God. For no apparent reason, she may appear just fine, only to be revisited by unpredictable highs and lows. “Grief attacks” may come suddenly, without warning, in the most unexpected places. Healing from grief has no timetable; it could take many months, or even years. Be sensitive to the reality that your friend may never fully “get over” the death. The pain may lessen, but sadness may never completely go away.

Cultural sensitivities in grieving. If you sense that there may be cultural customs when you are offering support, it is best to ask the grieving person what support feels most comfortable.

The bereaved need to know that what she or he is experiencing is normal. Many grieving people think they are going crazy. They need to be reassured that what they are experiencing is normal and will eventually pass. With time and support they will heal. Life may not ever be the same as before the death, however, the difficulty of the healing process will eventually subside.

Your gentle, non-judgmental, accepting presence is what your friend needs. Remember that your grieving friend’s heart wants to heal, and will heal. You are not the healer but your compassionate presence will offer support as your friend does healing work. There’s nothing that you really need “to do” other than being present in an accepting and caring way.

What you can say to someone who’s loved one has died:

  • “I wish I had the right words, just know I care.”
  • Use the word “died” rather than phrases like “passed on” or “gone to heaven.” Your candid words tell say that you are open to her reality.
  • “You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.”
  • If your friend apologizes for crying, you can assure him that it is perfectly normal, and that you are there to support him. Share that you would like to hear how he feels.
  • Don’t be afraid to say words that trigger crying. Crying helps healing. Some examples might be: “What do you miss about your husband?” or “Would you feel comfortable telling me about how the funeral was for you?” To heal, it helps to feel.
  • Ask your friend, “What I can do for you? I’d love to help.” Examples might be shopping or running errands, picking up a rental movie, helping with funeral arrangements, helping with bills, doing housework, helping with the children, looking after a pet, taking your friend to lunch, etc.
  • Be honest in your communication, and certainly don’t hide your feelings. If you don’t know what to say, perhaps tell your friend: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care.”
  • Try to be comfortable by sitting with your friend in silence, without saying anything. Holding her hand or giving a hug will communicate your caring presence.

What you should not say:

Knowing what not to say can be as important, or possibly more important, than knowing what to say. Speaking unskillful words can limit your effectiveness in your friend’s healing process. Here are some suggestions on what not to say:

  • “Look at what you have to be thankful for. Be strong.”
  • “I know how you feel.” Rather say, “If you are open to sharing, I’d like to hear how you feel.”
  • “He’s in a better place now,” “God wanted her to be with Him,” or “It was her time to go.”
  • “There’s a reason for everything. You just have to have faith.”
  • “It’s time to get on with your life, and let go.” Your friend will know when the time is right.
  • “Perhaps you should….” It is usually better to trust that your friend knows what is best for her.
  • “My mother died also.” Telling your own story, even if similar, shifts the focus from your friend.
  • “There’s a good grief book you can read.” This changes the dialog away from feelings.
  • “You told me that story last week.” Repetition of the same story helps a person to heal.

Be there for the long haul. Most people will support a grieving person at the time of the death by attending a memorial service and a reception afterwards. After these events, the reality of the death sets in and many grieving people feel very much alone and abandoned. Be there for the long haul by checking in periodically, or by sending a card. Because most people are very uncomfortable around a grieving person, your friend may actually learn to hide emotions. Don’t be fooled by the words, “I’m okay.”

When children grieve. The younger the children, the less that they will grieve like adults. Understanding grieving children is a unique field of expertise so it may be helpful to seek help from professionals who support grieving children. However here are some simple suggestions:

  • Be honest with your child regarding your own grief. Hiding your sadness teaches a child to do so. Don’t tell a child to stop crying. Include children in the grieving process but don’t make them your confidant.
  • Be open to talking about the death experience.
  • Don’t force children to go to a funeral if they don’t want to, but allow them to attend if they wish.
  • Help children to find ways to memorialize the deceased person, perhaps by planting a flower, lighting a candle, or making a memorial altar in the house.
  • Keep the child’s daily routine as normal as possible.
  • Realize that children often display their grief through play.
  • Children may express their sadness in brief spurts, and at unexpected times.
  • Don’t give confusing messages like: “God took grandma to be with Him,” or “Grandpa is sleeping now.”
  • Seek help from professionals who understand how children grieve.


©2013 Bob Dorsett, LLC 

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