HelpGuide Logo

HELPGUIDE.ORG

Trusted guide to mental, emotional & social health

Helping Someone Who’s Grieving

Supporting Others Through Bereavement, Grief, and Loss

Woman comforting daughter

It can be difficult to know what to say or do when someone you care about is grieving. You may be afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making the person feel even worse. Or maybe you feel there’s little you can do to make things better. But while you can’t take away the pain of the loss, you can provide much-needed comfort and support. There are many ways to help a grieving friend or family member, starting with letting the person know you care.

Why is support so important to someone who's grieving?

The death of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult experiences. The bereaved struggle with many intense and painful emotions, including depression, anger, guilt, and profound sadness. Often, they feel isolated and alone in their grief, but having someone to lean on can help them through the grieving process.

The intense pain and difficult emotions that accompany bereavement can often make people uncomfortable about offering support to someone who’s grieving. You may be unsure what to do or worried about saying the wrong thing at such a difficult time. 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 or give advice or say and do all the right things. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there. It’s your support and caring presence that will help your loved one cope with the pain and gradually begin to heal.

Understanding the grieving process

The better your understanding of grief and how it is healed, 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” be feeling or doing.

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 the 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. This can actually slow the healing process.

What to say to someone who is grieving?

Many of us feel awkward when we’re trying to comfort someone who has experienced a significant loss. Often, we’re unsure what we should say or do. These suggestions can help:

  • Acknowledge the situation. Example: "I heard that your_____ died." Use the word "died." That will show that you are more open to talk about how the person really feels.
  • Express your concern. Example: "I'm sorry to hear that this happened to you."
  • Be genuine in your communication and don't hide your feelings. Example: "I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care."
  • Offer your support. Example: "Tell me what I can do for you."
  • Ask how your loved one feels. The emotions of grief can change rapidly, so don't assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day.

Source: American Cancer Society

Supporting a grieving person tip 1: Listen with compassion

While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person, it’s actually more important to know how to listen. Oftentimes, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or change the subject when the deceased person is mentioned. But the bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and their loved one won’t be forgotten. By listening compassionately, you can take your cues from the grieving person. Never try to force someone to open up, but let your grieving loved one know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk about their loss.

If the deceased’s name comes up, talk candidly about them rather than steering away from the subject. When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions—without being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express their feelings. By simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?” you’re letting your loved one know that you’re available to listen.

Accept and acknowledge all 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 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, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.

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.

Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what they’re feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. Remember, though, that grief is an intensely individual experience. No two people experience it exactly the same way, so don’t claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to theirs, or offer unsolicited advice. Again, put the emphasis on listening instead, and ask your loved one to tell you how they’re feeling.

Comments to avoid when comforting the bereaved

  • "It's part of God's plan." This phrase can make people angry and they often respond with, "What plan? Nobody told me about any plan."
  • "Look at what you have to be thankful for." They know they have things to be thankful for, but right now they are not important.
  • "He's in a better place now." The bereaved may or may not believe this. Keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked.
  • "This is behind you now; it's time to get on with your life." Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to getting on with because they feel this means "forgetting" their loved one. Besides, moving on is much easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
  • Statements that begin with "You should" or "You will." These statements are too directive. Instead you could begin your comments with: "Have you thought about..." or "You might try..."

Source: American Hospice Foundation

Tip 2: Offer practical assistance

It is difficult for many grieving people to ask for help. They might feel guilty about receiving so much attention, fear being a burden to others, or simply be too depressed to reach out. A grieving person may not have the energy or motivation to call you when they need something, so instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” make it easier for them by making specific suggestions. You could say, “I’m going to the market this afternoon. What can I bring you from there?” or “I’ve made beef stew for dinner. When can I come by and bring you some?”

If you’re able, try to be consistent in your offers of assistance. The grieving person will know that you’ll be there for as long as it takes and can look forward to your attentiveness without having to make the additional effort of asking again and again.

Practical ways to help a grieving person

You can offer to:

  • Shop for groceries or run errands
  • Drop off a casserole or other type of food
  • Help with funeral arrangements
  • Stay in your loved one’s home to take phone calls and receive guests
  • Help with insurance forms or bills
  • Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
  • Watch their children or pick them up from school
  • Drive your loved one wherever he or she needs to go
  • Look after your loved one's pets
  • Go with them to a support group meeting
  • Accompany them on a walk
  • Take them to lunch or a movie
  • Share an enjoyable activity (sport, game, puzzle, art project)

Tip 3: Provide ongoing support

Your loved one will continue grieving long after the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have stopped. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person, but often lasts much longer than most people expect. Your bereaved friend or family member may need your support for months or even years.

Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with the grieving person, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Once the funeral is over and the other mourners are gone, and the initial shock of the loss has worn off, your support is more valuable than ever.

Don’t make assumptions based on outward appearances. The bereaved person may look fine on the outside, while inside they’re suffering. Avoid saying things like “You are so strong” or “You look so well.” This puts pressure on the person to keep up appearances and to hide their true feelings.

The pain of bereavement may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same. You don’t “get over” the death of a loved one. The bereaved person may learn to accept the loss. The pain may lessen in intensity over time, but the sadness may never completely go away.

Offer extra support on special days. Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend or family member. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever they need.

Tip 4: Watch for warning signs of depression

It’s common for a grieving person to feel depressed, confused, disconnected from others, or like they're going crazy. But if the bereaved person’s symptoms don’t gradually start to fade—or they get worse with time—this may be a sign that normal grief has evolved into a more serious problem, such as clinical depression.

Encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if you observe any of the following warning signs after the initial grieving period—especially if it’s been over two months since the death.

  1. Difficulty functioning in daily life
  2. Extreme focus on the death
  3. Excessive bitterness, anger, or guilt
  4. Neglecting personal hygiene
  5. Alcohol or drug abuse
  1. Inability to enjoy life
  2. Hallucinations
  3. Withdrawing from others
  4. Constant feelings of hopelessness
  5. Talking about dying or suicide

It can be tricky to bring up your concerns to the bereaved person as you don’t want to be perceived as invasive. Instead of telling the person what to do, try stating your own feelings: “I am troubled by the fact that you aren’t sleeping—perhaps you should look into getting help.

Take talk of suicide very seriously

If a grieving friend or family member talks about suicide, get professional help right away. IN A LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCY, CALL 911 OR YOUR COUNTRY'S EMERGENCY SERVICE NUMBER.

To learn more about the warning signs, see Suicide Prevention.

How to help a child who's grieving

Even very young children feel the pain of bereavement, but they learn how to express their grief by watching the adults around them. After a loss—particularly of a sibling or parent—children need support, stability, and honesty. They may also need extra reassurance that they will be cared for and kept safe. As an adult, you can support children through the grieving process by demonstrating that it’s okay to be sad and helping them make sense of the loss.

Answer any questions the child may have as truthfully as you can. Use very simple, honest, and concrete terms when explaining death to a child. Children—especially young children—may blame themselves for what happened and the truth helps them see they are not at fault.

Open communication will smooth the way for a child to express distressing feelings. Because children often express themselves through stories, games, and artwork, encourage this self-expression, and look for clues in those activities about how they are coping.

Helping a grieving child
Do:
  • Allow your child, however young, to attend the funeral if they want to.
  • Convey your spiritual values about life and death, or pray with your child.
  • Meet regularly as a family to find out how everyone is coping.
  • Help your child find ways to symbolize and memorialize the deceased person.
  • Keep your child's daily routine as normal as possible.
  • Pay attention to the way a child plays; this can be one of a child's primary ways of communicating.
Don't:
  • Force a child to publicly mourn if they don't want to.
  • Give false or confusing messages, like "Grandma is sleeping now."
  • Tell a child to stop crying because others might get upset.
  • Try to shield a child from the loss. Children pick up on much more than adults realize. Including them in the grieving process will help them adapt and heal.
  • Stifle your tears. By crying in front of your child, you send the message that it's okay for them to express feelings, too.
  • Turn your child into your personal confidante. Rely on another adult or a support group instead.

More help for grief

Resources and references

General information on helping the bereaved

Grief: How to Support the Bereaved – Learn how to help in the first few days, how to listen with compassion, comments to avoid, and practical help you can give. (Better Health Channel)

How to Help a Grieving Person and Things Not to Do – Gives practical guidance on how to support the bereaved through the grieving process. (Funeralplan.com)

How to Help a Grieving Person – Series of articles on bereavement support, including how to help parents, families, friends, and co-workers. (Journey of Hearts)

Coping with the Loss of a Loved One (PDF) – Information on the grieving process including what to say to someone who is grieving. (American Cancer Society)

Helping a grieving parent

Helping a Grieving Parent – Offers advice on how to comfort your surviving parent, while also dealing with your own grief. (American Hospice Foundation)

When an Employee is Grieving the Death of a Child – Helpful article on how employers can help a grieving employee who has lost a child. (The Compassionate Friends)

Helping a grieving child

Helping Your Child Deal With Death – Provides clear and simple suggestions for helping children understand and cope with the death of a loved one. (Nemours Foundation)

Guidelines for Parents to Help Their Children Through Grief – Tips on how parents can help and support children who are grieving. (American Hospice Foundation)

The Grieving Teen – Describes how teens grieve and how to help through peer counseling and grief support groups. (American Hospice Foundation)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: April 2017.