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How To Effectively Supporting Someone Grieving

community & support elissa swihart hannah chijioke-davis loss & grief navigating grief Jul 08, 2024

When someone you care about is grieving after a loss and struggles with many intense and painful emotions, including depression, anger, guilt, and profound sadness, it can be challenging to know what to do to support them. It doesn't have a timeline, and it is not unusual for grief to be felt over an extended period – whether it be months, years, or even decades after the person's death. Those suffering from grief often feel isolated and alone in their experience.

The intense pain and complicated emotions they face can make people uncomfortable about offering support. You may fear 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 improve things. 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, give advice, say, or do all the right things. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is be there. Your support and caring presence will help your loved one cope with the pain and gradually begin to heal.

Grief isn't something you can 'fix'

It is a natural response when we know someone is upset to want to try and fix things for them. Following the death of a loved one, however, the reality is that you can't 'fix' their grief. There is nothing you can say that will make a bereaved person feel better about their loss, but there are things you can do to provide comfort and support for them during this difficult time.

There are many things you can do or say to help, but remember that everyone's experience of grief is different. Some of your thoughts and suggestions may be appropriate, and others may not be. If you're unsure how to support someone grieving, ask them what they need or want. Letting them know you care and wish to help can provide great comfort.

Let's consider some things to consider when comforting someone through bereavement, grief, and loss.

The better your understanding of grief and the healing process, 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" feel or do.

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 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, as this can slow the healing process.

Suggestions on how to help a bereaved person in the first few days include:

  • Contact the bereaved person as soon as possible after their loved one's death. This contact could be a personal visit, telephone call, text message, sympathy card, or flowers.
  • Attend the funeral or memorial service if you can.
  • Offer your support and ask them how they would like you to support them.
  • Listen to them if they want to open up to you and try to suspend all judgment.

Helpful things to say to someone who's grieving:

While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person, it's more important to listen. Often, 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. 

While you should never try to force someone to open up, it's essential 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 express their feelings openly. By asking, "Do you feel like talking?" you're letting your loved one know 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 talking about how the grieving person 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 it would help. Remember, though, that grief is an intensely individual experience. No two people experience it the same way, so don't claim to "know" what the person is feeling or compare your grief to theirs. Again, emphasize 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. Refrain from minimizing their loss, providing simplistic solutions, or offering unsolicited advice. It's far better to 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, offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.

Comments to avoid when talking with someone who is grieving:

It is a natural reaction to want to ease the person's pain. However, well-meaning words that encourage the bereaved to 'look on the bright side' can be hurtful. The types of comments that should be avoided include: 

- "You'll get married again one day."

- "At least you have your other children."

- "She's lucky she lived to such a ripe old age."

- "It was God's will."

- "You can always try for another baby."

- "He's happy in heaven."

- "Be thankful they're not in pain anymore."

- "Try to remember the good times."

- "You'll feel better soon."

- "Time heals all wounds."

- "Count your blessings. You still have a lot to be grateful for."

- "You've got to pull yourself together and be strong."

- "I know exactly how you feel."

- "Everything happens for a reason."

Practical help for a grieving person:

You can show the grieving person that you care by offering practical help, such as:

  • Do some of their housework, such as cleaning or clothes washing.
  • Bring over pre-cooked meals that only need to be reheated before serving.
  • Answer the telephone for them.
  • Take over some of their regular duties, such as picking up the children from school.
  • Be mindful that they may not want you to support them this way, and their requests should be respected.

When to seek further help for grief:

Although grief can be very painful, people often find that with the support of their family and friends, they gradually find ways to learn to live with their loss and do not need to seek professional help. However, sometimes, the circumstances of the loss may have been particularly distressing or traumatic, making the grief particularly acute or complicated. Consider suggesting your friend or relative seek professional help if, over time, they seem to be struggling to manage their day-to-day life.

Coach Hannah experienced profound grief when she tragically lost her husband, leaving her to raise their five young children alone. Now, she channels her pain, hard-earned wisdom, and professional training to support others on their grief journey. Discover more about Hannah and schedule a free call to connect with her if you or someone you know could benefit from her guidance. Additionally, you can access her free guide and audio download designed to help navigate grief and disappointment.

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