When it comes to helping others grieve, most of us don’t know what to do. We attempt well-meaning gestures and try to say and do the right thing. Often times our efforts fall flat. Even worse, saying the wrong thing might put a wedge between you and the person grieving.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s grief is unique. Your personal experience dealing may not be useful to someone else. That’s why saying “I know exactly how you feel” isn’t helpful. Instead, let the grieving person know you are there to listen if they’d like to talk.
Remember, there is no timetable for grief. For some, progress will come quickly but for others, there will be ups and downs and the process may be considerably longer than you might expect. You should avoid making judgments about how long it is taking for someone to feel better.
Grieving is an intensely emotional period and is often characterized by confusion, forgetting the “little things” occurring at this time, and fear connected with facing life without the person lost. That is why it is critical that you are patient and understanding. Just being present for support can help. Regardless of the situation, the only effective way of helping others grieve is to allow them to do it in their own way and in their own time.
Whether friends or family lose a loved one in infancy or childhood, through accidental death, a suicide, an illness, or due to natural causes, you can respond in ways that will support their unique needs. For tips on handling grief in special situations, visit the appropriate page that is listed in the right sidebar or in the links above. Keep in mind that more than one of the situations can apply to an individual death.
Below are some general tips that apply to most grief situations. If you are concerned about the way a friend or loved one is reacting, do not hesitate to consult with a professional. There are many support groups and grief counselors available.
Helping Others Grieve: What NOT to do…
- Don’t feel like you have to constantly be talking. Just being there to listen can help.
- Avoid filling in conversation with outside news. Other topics can overshadow the mourner’s grief.
- Don’t use this as an opportunity to convert your friend or family member to your spiritual beliefs.
- Avoid falling back on cliches to try to console your friend.
- Don’t talk about your own losses or problems.
- Don’t try to take the place of the deceased.
- Don’t impose a time limit on your support.
- Don’t shy away from conversations or stories that involve the deceased.
Helping Others Grieve: What to do…
- Acknowledge the death.
- Refer to the deceased by name.
- Be there to listen. Let the bereaved talk about their feelings. Don’t worry about how you are going to respond, just try to be understanding.
- Allow your loved one to talk about the deceased. Perhaps you’ve heard the story before, but be patient. Remembering can be helpful.
- Let your friend know that you would like to spend time with them when they are ready, but don’t impose on them if they would like to be alone.
- Allow and encourage others to help. It’s important for a grieving person to have a wide network of support.
- Commit to contacting your friend on a regular basis–once a week or once a month.
- Take your friend out to have fun so they can see that life still holds many pleasures.
- Proactively clean, cook, or do other chores. Offering to help is generous and appreciated, but the bereaved are often hesitant to take up volunteers on their offers.
- If your friend remains depressed for a long period of time, find a tactful way to suggest therapy. Many people reject this idea but it can help.
Remember, it can take a long time for a grieving person to feel normal again, so don’t expect one visit to cause a change of heart. The most important part of helping a grieving person is being there when they need you, so make yourself available.
Other Considerations About Helping Others Grieve
- People with developmental or mental challenges feel grief just as intensely as other family members. Don’t overlook their needs.
- Children may need special attention. For more information on helping children deal with grief, click here.
- Grief can affect performance in the workplace. Employers need to be especially sensitive to the needs of grieving employees.
- Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, a birthday, an anniversary should be acknowledged. This is not morbid or unnatural. Go ahead and share your memory with a grieving family member. The loved one is already on their mind. Let them know it’s OK to not feel OK.