12 Ways to Support Someone Through Grief
A guide to ease the awkwardness of grief
It’s difficult to be there for the people we love when they’re grieving. Nobody wants to say the wrong thing. When we don’t know what to do, many of us decide to do nothing at all. We think it’s better to avoid it entirely than to make a mistake.
That is a major myth about grief. The truth is, grief is awkward. It changes size and shape over time. It surprises us. It leaves us stumbling for words, whether we are grieving or trying to support someone who is. We know how uncomfortable it can be when someone else goes through a loss and we don’t know how to help them. But it’s even more uncomfortable when we don’t acknowledge the grief that person is navigating.
We created this grief guide on how to support a loved one who’s going through something devastating. It’s a tool to help you the next time you’re confronted by the magnitude of someone else’s loss. Don’t fall for the myth that if you feel uncertain, you shouldn’t do anything. Instead, try out some of these tips.
1. Reach out.
Whatever fear is holding you back from reaching out—that you’ll say the wrong thing,
that you haven’t talked in a long time, that you’re not a close friend—swallow that fear and say something. It can be extremely comforting to know someone cares about you and your suffering. You can say something as simple as: “I’m so sorry to learn about your uncle’s death. I want you to know I’m thinking of you.” Try to be specific and personal, instead of just “I’m sorry for your loss.”
2. Admit your uncertainty.
It is okay to tell someone, “I don’t know exactly what to say right now, but I’m here for you.” You can overcome the awkwardness between someone grieving and their loved ones just by saying those words. In the midst of grief, someone isn’t looking for their friend to say the perfect thing that takes away the pain. People who are grieving often feel their loss is so overpowering that they don’t have the words for it. It can be incredibly supportive to acknowledge that words aren’t the only way to process a loss.
If someone opens up to you about their loss or how they are feeling, listen. There is comfort in giving someone your full attention and quiet presence. You don’t need to interject with advice, even though it’s hard to resist our instinct to problem-solve. And resist the urge to fill the silence, even when it’s awkward. Our instinct to speak during silence is often about our own discomfort with grief, so take a pause to be thoughtful about if and what you choose to say. Make space for your loved one to share without judgment and to know that you hear them.
4. Be consistent.
People often receive lots of support in the first weeks after a loss, and then it quickly tapers away. You don’t have to come up with a grand way to help them. It’s better to be consistent. If your friend lost his father and they used to watch football together, check in or just say hello on game day. Or, set a reminder in your calendar to call your loved one every two weeks. Even if they don’t pick up, they will know you are someone they can depend on.
5. Don’t wait for them to ask, just help.
Nobody wants to overstep, so it’s natural to say things like “let me know if you need help” or ask “what can I do to help?” But people going through grief are often juggling a logistical and emotional overload. It can take a lot of effort for them to think about what they need, and ask for it. Just let them know you’ve dropped off a casserole or you’re available that afternoon to walk the dog. Don’t ask, just do.
6. Show your love.
Everyone shows and receives love differently. You might be a beautiful writer and send a heartfelt letter of condolences and memories, or you might be an excellent baker and leave a plate of cookies at your loved one’s door. Give a gift card for a massage or to order takeout one night. There is no right way to show you care, so just be you. Whatever you would normally do to show support, love, or appreciation, adjust it appropriately for a loss and don’t hold back.
7. Don’t compare your experience.
Unless you’ve had a very comparable loss to your loved one’s, don’t make comparisons to losses you’ve experienced. Avoid saying things like “I understand how you are feeling” or “I know exactly how you feel.” No matter how good their intentions are, it can be alienating and diminishing to hear someone share how much they struggled from their losses when your loved one’s grief is so raw and new. Instead, say things like “I hate that you are going through this” or “Thank you for sharing about your mom with me.” You can still have empathy without directly speaking about your own life.
8. Validate their feelings.
Grief is complicated, and so are the feelings that come with it. People going through a loss can feel a range of emotions, especially if their relationship with the person they lost was complex. Don’t make assumptions about how they feel. For example, just because your friend was estranged from her brother doesn’t diminish her grief. Saying things like “You have every right to feel the way you do” or “I’m not going to judge you, no matter what you’re feeling” can make a major difference in making your loved one feel less alone.
9. Don’t make sweeping statements.
You might be tempted to say things like “He was such a great man!” to someone who lost their father, but everyone’s relationship is different and often nuanced. Take your cues from your loved one. If they share a story about their father helping them, don’t say “He was always so kind.” Instead, share a story of your own. Or if you don’t have one, ask your loved ones questions. Let them take the lead.
10. Remember important dates.
Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries can be extra painful days for people who are grieving, so be sure to check in on your loved ones then. You can simply tell them that they are on your mind. If you know of any special days that were especially important to the person you are supporting and the person they lost, keep those in mind, too. Saying things like “I know how much your mom loved decorating for Valentine’s Day. She’s on my mind today,” can be a balm on difficult days.
11. Include them.
Those who are grieving might worry about being in a fog, not knowing what to talk about, or being down. Invite them to group events and one-on-one time, anyway. Let them know there’s no pressure to act a certain way, and they are always welcome. Don’t make them feel like their sadness is contagious. Including them in plans can remind them that their grief won’t cause a rift. You are there, and you will be there when they’re ready.
12. Keep trying.
It can take a long time for someone going through a loss to be responsive, engaged, or energized. Just because your loved one hasn’t replied to a few texts doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the caring messages. Keep trying. It means a lot to show that you are not giving up on them.
Even with the best of intentions, supporting someone we love through their grief can be awkward and scary. It’s natural to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. But trust your instincts to be kind and respectful, and you will be a great support to your loved one in their time of need.
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