Bereavement: Grieving the Loss of a Loved One
Coping when a friend or family member dies
Is someone you know grieving a loss? Learn what to say and how to comfort someone through bereavement, grief, and loss.
When someone you care about is grieving after a loss, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. The bereaved struggle with many intense and painful emotions, including depression, anger, guilt, and profound sadness. Often, they also feel isolated and alone in their grief, since the intense pain and difficult emotions can make people uncomfortable about offering support.
You may be afraid of 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 make things better. 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.
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.
While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person, it's actually more important to listen. Oftentimes, 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.
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. One day they may want to cry on your shoulder, on another day they may want to vent, or sit in silence, or share memories. By being present and listening compassionately, you can take your cues from the grieving person. Simply being there and listening to them can be a huge source of comfort and healing.
While you should never try to force someone to open up, it's important 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 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.
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 talk about how the grieving person really 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.
[Read: Bereavement: Grieving the Loss of a Loved One]
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 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. Again, put the emphasis on 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. Don't try to minimize their loss, provide simplistic solutions, or offer unsolicited advice. It's far better to just 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, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Offer your support. Ask what you can do for the grieving person. Offer to help with a specific task, such as helping with funeral arrangements, or just be there to hang out with or as a shoulder to cry on.
“It's part of God's plan.” This platitude can anger people. Often, they'll 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
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.
There are many practical ways you can help a grieving person. You can offer to:
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.
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.
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.“
If a grieving friend or family member talks about suicide, seek help immediately. Please read Suicide Prevention or call a suicide helpline:
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.
Crisis Call Center at 775-784-8090
Cruse Bereavement Care at 0808 808 1677
GriefLine at (03) 9935 7400
Find a GriefShare group meeting near you – Worldwide directory of support groups for people grieving the death of a family member or friend. (GriefShare)
Find Support – Directory of programs and support groups in the U.S. for children experiencing grief and loss. (National Alliance for Grieving Children)
Chapter Locator for finding help for grieving the loss of a child in the U.S. and International Support for finding help in other countries. (The Compassionate Friends)
Millions of readers rely on HelpGuide.org for free, evidence-based resources to understand and navigate mental health challenges. Please donate today to help us save, support, and change lives.Donate to HelpGuide.org today