When someone you know is grieving the death of a loved one, it’s hard to know how to help. Often you can see them struggling with the pain and loss they feel, but you may be uncertain what degree or type of support to offer. You may even worry that mentioning the death of the loved one will just make the bereaved person feel worse. Below are some suggestions for ways to support someone who is grieving.
Take your cue from the griever regarding whether they are ready to talk about their loved one or not. Some bereaved people find solace in remembrance and conversation. They may engage you in reminiscence or go over the details of their loved one’s death. Others may not be ready to talk about their loss. They may prefer to grieve in a more private manner. It’s not that they aren’t grieving, but that they need to process their feelings in their own way. When they are ready, they may reach out to you and engage you in conversation about their loss. If you are unsure whether someone who is grieving wants to talk, go ahead and ask them. Then honor their wishes.
Help the griever create a memorial. Many bereaved people find that, rather than talking, they prefer to physically express their grief by building or creating something that is a memorial to their loved one. Volunteer to help them. They may or may not want assistance, but it’s very supporting to ask.
Be patient with the griever. The process of grief takes time, and everyone experiences it at their own pace. Contrary to what many people think, grief is not a series of stages and there is no timetable. It’s not helpful to expect a griever to be “finished” with their grief or ready to “move on” by a certain date.
Check in with the griever every now and then. Often we gather around a bereaved person during the funeral and immediately after but then as time goes on, we may contact them less often. This may be because we are unsure how to help them after the very defined cultural/social period of official mourning and remembrance. Yet, many grievers still want and need support for quite some time after their loss. By checking in with them periodically you are letting them know you are still there for them. Just being present to listen if the person feels like talking, or accompanying them as they engage in activities they used to do with their loved one can be extremely helpful.
Let the griever decide in their own time when to go through their loved one’s belongings. Some people need to keep their loved one’s possessions around them for a long time, others wish to go through their loved one’s things much sooner. There is nothing wrong with either approach. We may feel dismay that a griever is letting go of their loved one’s things too soon, or conversely we may think they are waiting too long to let go. Often we feel this way because of a mistaken belief that grief is made up of steps in a timetable. You can help the bereaved person the most by simply supporting their decision, and by being there with emotional or physical help when they need it.
Help the griever get through anniversaries and holidays by being especially understanding during those times. Many bereaved people have an especially difficult time during special occasions that remind them of their deceased love one. Anniversaries and holidays in particular can intensify the feelings of loss as the griever celebrates these special days without their loved one. Some grievers like to create a special memorial tradition for their loved one either connected with the official holiday or anniversary, or separate from it. If this is the case, offer to help with this and to celebrate with them.
Offer the griever practical help. Making dinner, washing dishes, walking the dog, childcare, grocery shopping: these are all practical chores that you can assist with. Often we expect the bereaved person to reach out for this type of specific help, and we think we’re indicating our availability by saying, “call me” or “let me know.” The truth is, grievers rarely ask for this type of help even if they need it badly. You can often make a real difference by specifying the help you are willing to give, for instance, saying, “I’ll make you dinner on Monday and drop it off at your house at 6:00,” or “I can take the dog for a walk right after work today.”