How to Support Someone Grieving?

Supporting a grieving friend can feel really tough. You want to be helpful but are afraid of saying the wrong thing. It takes courage to show up and be present for someone else’s pain. Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful on what to do (and what NOT to do)to support a friend in grief.

What To Do:

DO: Validate your friend’s emotions and feelings.

Give your friend space to feel the complicated emotions in grief. Listen to your friend and reflect back what you hear them saying. That might sound something like “Of course you feel angry right now” or “This is hard”. You are not responsible (nor is it even possible!) for having to fix their pain.  

DO: Embrace the awkwardness.

It’s okay if you feel awkward and don’t know what to say. You can even communicate that to your friend! That might sound something like “I wish I knew the right thing to say. I know nothing I can say will fix this, but I love you and I am here for you.”  

DO: Recognize that everyone grieves differently.

You may have found a strategy that worked well in your own experience with loss. Perhaps you found comfort in a support group or a new found love of weight lifting. It can be tempting to encourage your friend to try the same things, but everyone grieves in their own way. What worked for you may not work for your friend.

In addition, follow your friend’s lead. How you react to loss might be very different from how they react. Your friend may need time alone or she might want your company. Your friend may want to talk a lot about the person who died, or talking about the deceased might be too painful for them at the present moment. If you aren’t sure what your friend wants or needs at the moment, just ask.  

DO: Offer to do a practical task or go with them on an errand.

Grief can be exhausting and make concentration difficult. Many people say “Let me know what I can do” but it can be hard for a griever to figure out and ask for what they need from others. Offer to help a friend with something practical and specific like mowing their lawn, cleaning their kitchen, picking up groceries, or walking their dog. Alternatively, ask if your friend could use company on an errand like getting their car’s oil changed or going to the post office.

DO: Request permission before making suggestions.

Many people in grief aren’t looking for solutions; they are looking for support. But if you think you have some helpful suggestions, first say something like “Do you mind if I share something that worked for me?” or “Would you like to talk about some ideas to cope with what you are going through?”. And respect your friend’s answer if they aren’t interested in advice at this time!

DO: Ask if your friend would like to talk about the person who died.

Grieving individuals are often concerned that their loved one will be forgotten. Sharing memories or something you liked about the person who died can feel comforting. You can also support your friend in figuring out a way to honor the person who died. That might look like participating in a charity walk, making a memory book, or listening to favorite music.

DO: Be mindful of important dates.

Grief can be especially intense around holidays, birthdays, death anniversaries, and other special days. Talk with your friend about any days that might be particularly difficult for them and ask how you could be helpful. Note those days in your calendar so that you are reminded to reach out in the weeks, months, and years following your friend’s loss.

What NOT To Do:

DON’T: Try to cheer them up or find a silver lining.

One of the most helpful things you can do is to sit with and be present with your friend in their pain without trying to change it. When you encourage someone in grief to focus on the positive, it can send a subtle message that you are not able to tolerate their pain. Your friend may then be less likely to share with you.

Remember that you do not need to fix your friend’s pain! Simply being with them in their grief is incredibly helpful and healing.

DON’T: Say any phrase that starts with “At least”.

“At least you had such a long life with your husband.”

“At least she’s not suffering anymore.”

“At least you have other kids.”

“At least you have such a great support system.”

Any sentence that starts with the words “at least” tends to minimize the griever’s pain. Phrases like this send a message to grievers that they don’t have a right to their pain and sadness.

Whatever a grieving individual feels is valid. A person can be both grateful for the years they had with their spouse and profoundly devastated by the loss. We can feel more than one emotion at the same time.  

DON’T: Bring Up Your Own Grief History

You might feel like you are being helpful by sharing your own experience with grief, but everyone’s situation is different. Sharing your own grief story takes the focus off of the griever.

DON’T: Make assumptions about a person’s faith or spiritual beliefs.

Your faith may be a great place of comfort and peace for you. And that’s great! But death and loss can often challenge a person’s sense of spirituality. Be cautious about saying something that references a particular faith tradition or a specific perspective about the afterlife if you aren’t sure about your friend’s beliefs.

DON’T: Exclude them from invitations.

You may assume that your friend is too exhausted by grief to want to socialize or attend events, but your friend might love to go to a concert for a brief distraction from their loss. Give your friend the option to say “no” if they aren’t up to a social engagement, but keep inviting them.

Small acts of kindness and simply showing up mean a lot to someone grieving. You can’t fix the pain they are in, but you can help ease their suffering.