No one is prepared for grief. No one. Not only does grief affect everyone differently but no two people’s grief journey is the same. And how to help those that are grieving. What do you do? What do you say? There’s no guide or handbook that leads you through what you should and shouldn’t do.
So we asked. We put it out there and asked real people that have lost about their grief. We asked them what family and friends did that helped and what they wish people hadn’t done. What would you want others that are trying to help those that are grieving - what would you want them to know. Below you’ll find real responses and answers.
1. Be present.
No matter if it’s for 10 minutes or 10 hours, show up and be present with them. Grief can be very isolating and often times those that are grieving don’t know how to ask you to just simply come and be. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say, it doesn’t matter if you’re uncomfortable. Bring a pizza, bring a coffee but just come right away and be. Even if your told “It’s okay - you don't need to come.” Yes, you do.
“Aimee was the ONLY person that came right away on her own to try and comfort us (with a Zombie Pizza she thought Jeff might eat) when we lost Johnny…only ONE of his friends came and that was because I called him and practically begged him to.”
2. Be a friend.
There’s a saying that states when tragedy strikes you find out who your real friends are and who your real friends aren’t. Be a friend in the good times and in the grieving times. As uncomfortable as you are those that are grieving are that much more uncomfortable and they need you now more than they ever have. If you’re a true friend, be there during the times of grief because that is when it is needed most.
“So many of my relationships changed. People who I would have expected to stick by were nowhere to be found while others were amazing. It’s true what they say about seeing people’s true colors when the going gets tough.”
3. Give them time.
Time is finite for those of us that are not grieving. A day has gone by, a week has gone by, months. For those that are grief stricken, time is standing still. It’s like living in a vacuum. Give them all the time they need to come out of their grief fog - whether it’s six months or two years. Again, everyone is different and each grief journey is singular to that individual.
"Give them as much time to heal as they need. There is no limit to grief.”
4. Show Patience.
And then show more patience. Again, people that are grieving are on a journey. There are days they don’t know if they are coming or going and they don’t really care. They are simply doing the best they can to grieve. To get through the moment. To get through the hour, the day. Love them, be there for them and continue to put your feelings after theirs and exercise patience.
“Patience…patience…patience.” “The most helpful thing that anyone could do during that first year was to continue to love me through the crazy, unpredictable moods and be patient…like real patient.”
5. Talk about the deceased.
A lot. Ask questions about everything and anything. If those that are grieving don’t want to answer then they won’t but a common answer was just keep their memory alive by talking about them. Tell stories. Talk about memories you shared. Those that are grief stricken will never forget those that they lost - they need to know that others feel the same.
"Honestly, keep talking about them. Memories are all we have so tell the stories! My brothers best friend still tells me new stories to this day and I love him for that. He’s not afraid to talk about him. I’m so happy to have him and his stories! So happy that he hasn’t forgotten him 22 years later. People are uncomfortable talking about them, we want to talk about them.”
6. Remember special dates.
This was mentioned repeatedly. Anniversaries, birthdays, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, special occasions. Remember those dates and acknowledge the deceased and/or the role that those left behind played. A bereaved mother who lost her son - honor her still on Mothers Day as the physical loss does not remove the ties that bind. She is still a mother and will be always. Remember their birthday, do something in memory of them on their birthday only if it’s to call and share a memory with the family. But remember those special dates because the family most definitely cannot forget.
“My best friends text me thinking of you on anniversaries and that means so much to me. I love them for remembering as I have.”
7. Take nothing personal.
When those that we love are grief stricken, life is seen through a very small scope. They are not concerned with your feelings, the neighbor’s feelings, anyone’s feelings except the loss that they are feeling. They may be angry, withdrawn, someone completely different that the person that you knew before the death. Don’t take it personal. Phone calls gone unreturned, text messages not responded to, events not attended - realize that maybe it took every effort to just get dressed that morning and attending a family gathering is not something they can do. They may lash out, say things they don’t really mean because it’s more about getting the hurt out and you happen to be the target. It’s not about you, it’s about them so try not to take anything to heart.
"Being able to NOT take anything I said or did personal. At times I would blow people and events off…at times I would leave places without saying goodbye, some days I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t acknowledge births in my family.”
8. Understand that loss never leaves.
For those of us not immediately connected to the loss, this can be difficult to grasp but for those that were closest to the deceased it is something they encounter every day. The loss never leaves. Never. It could be decades later, it could be after the birth of other children, new life born into the family. It doesn’t matter. The loss that they went through is still there, still as raw as it was from the beginning. And some days are far worse than others. Understand that the loss is permanent for them, a scar - not something that they just ‘get over’.
“Although she has a little boy 3 years before Cameron died and now has a little boy who is almost three, she mourns the loss of her baby, Cameron. She’s a wonderful mother and thoroughly enjoys her little boys but sometimes has very deep sorrow and grief.”
9. A hug goes a long way when you're unsure what to say.
One of the reasons we found that people often stay away from those that are grieving is that they don’t know what to say, they’re unsure of how to act. What we learned is that neither do the grieving know what to say or how to act. And that’s okay. A hug, a touch to the shoulder, letting them cry and saying nothing - all of that goes a long way with those that are grieving. Words are not always necessary.
"Having lost a son, the hardest thing is when you finally get the strength to go out in public (and you do have to force yourself) and you notice that when people see you they turn and run…I understand it’s a difficult situation as most don’t know what to say. The best way, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a week, month or year - a simple hug goes a long way. Words don’t need to be spoken.”
10. The cause of loss should NOT change the way we treat the grieving.
Regardless of whether the loss was through a tragic car accident, a long illness, a drug overdose or suicide - the ones left behind are grieving the loss and not the cause of the loss. Don’t treat those that lost a loved one to suicide any differently than you would those that lost a loved one to an accident. And be cognizant of it. You may not realize that you are unintentionally making less of a loss but the grieving party absolutely will.
“The cause of death should not change the way we treat the grieving. We feel the loss the exact same. Having lost a 12 year old nephew in a car accident, an 18 year old nephew to suicide and my brother to a heroin overdose, I can tell you that people are not as comfortable to talk about suicide or drug overdose deaths. I felt the same pain and loss for each yet I felt so much less compassion/support when I needed it more.”
11. Let them not be okay.
Several people said that often times when they were asked “how are you” their response was “okay” - even though the majority of them were not okay. But that response made those that were asking feel better. Be okay with them not being okay. Let them cry. Let them show their hurt. Let them be angry and upset. Allow them the courtesy of not being okay.
"It’s ok to cry and have your moment. It’s ok to show people you’re hurting. It’s ok to be not ok.”
12. Don't ask, just do.
Often times when we are trying to help those that are grieving we ask them - what can we do to help. And the response is often - it’s okay. I’m good. They are not okay and they are not good. But they may not know what they need and they may not want to ask. So just do it. Clean up the kitchen. Throw out food that is going bad in the refrigerator. Clean up a bathroom that has been neglected. Bring over a meal and be okay if it still sits untouched a week later and throw it away silently. Go grab groceries, mow the lawn, just do what needs to be done. Even if it’s just sitting there holding a hand.
“Be there. Ask them what they need. If they say nothing I’m good just sit with them and do nothing. We are not good! We just don’t always know what we need and most hate asking for help.”
13. Do what they cannot do.
When a loved one dies, there are things that need to be done. Rooms that need to be cleaned out. Items that need to be found. Tasks that need to be taken care of and those left behind simply may be unable to do so. With restraint and awareness, help them with the things that they cannot do. Be ever mindful and respectful of their feelings and handle those tasks with care.
"When my nephew died in a car accident there were things in his car that needed to be removed - all of his personal belongings. My sister and her husband were simply unable to do so - it was just too much. So my brother and my brother-in-law’s brother took care of it for them. They went to the tow company and carefully removed all of the personal items from the car, put them in a box and brought them home for the parents.”
14. Don’t judge the way they choose to remember their loved ones.
Some people get tattoos, some create a shrine at home in memory of the deceased, some try unconventional methods to remember and find a connection with those that they’ve lost. You haven’t walked a mile in their shoes and if it brings them comfort - that is what matters most. Don’t judge their methods of finding peace.
“I’ve had 2 great medium experiences and all I can say was wow! One from Teresa Caputo the Long Island Medium and one from a random Medium who happened to be sitting next to my family in a restaurant. Very random. Apparently my son wouldn't let her eat unless she talked to us.”
15. It’s a long road - show up in the weeks ahead.
After the services and the memorials and all the relatives have gone home, show up for the family. Everyone else’s life may be returning to normal but they are far from normal - in fact, they have to come up with a ‘new normal’. Be there for them. As much as possible. Just because the services have ended doesn't meant that there grief has ended. Whether it’s a phone call, a quick text, an invite for coffee or just a short visit, they need the support after the services more than ever.
"Be there after everyone goes home (when the funeral is over and everyone else returns to normal life).”
16. Don't leave them out.
Family plans, things to do, outings, get togethers. Invite them. They may come, they may not come but that doesn’t mean stop inviting them. Especially for those that lost a spouse. And help to keep them busy when you can. Sometimes the smallest of distractions can go a long way to helping them just not think about their loss for an hour, for ten minutes. Don’t give up if they are not inclined to accept right away. Continue to gently ask and do what you can to keep them involved.
“Also keep them busy. Sitting home, staring at their room is a killer. Maybe help them clean out their stuff but most of all include them. Invite them. Get them to socialize so people feel comfortable talking to them and they feel they can talk to you. The worst thing is feeling left out and even more lonely.”
17. Don't dismiss their grief.
Grief does not ever fully go away. It changes, it morphs, some days are harder than others. But don’t dismiss it and put your expectations on it.
"And never dismiss their grief as ‘they’ll get past it’. It never goes away. The pain never stops. There is never a day that a person doesn’t think of the person that has passed.”
18. Their grief is not your grief so don't compare.
Their grief is singular to them. Individual. Don’t compare your grief to their grief, assume that what you’re feeling or what you’ve experienced in the past is the same as what they are feeling. It’s not. How many times have we interjected our own stories of grief with the thought that maybe by hearing our story they will feel better. Intentions may be well meaning but often times it is construed as being offensive to the recipient - especially if comparing the loss of a loved one to the loss of a pet for example. No comparisons needed.
“People grieve in many different ways. No two people are the same. Don’t ever compare your grief to someone else.”
19. Regardless of 'blood' relation, treat all that were close to the deceased with compassion.
With blended families, close friends, unique situations - the definition of family has many different meanings and make-ups. Sometimes those that the deceased was closes to is not necessarily of blood relation however that doesn’t mean that the bond and love was not just as strong. Be compassionate and caring regardless of blood relation. The loss is just as great for close friends, step parents, those that spent a great deal of time with the deceased.
“I was devastated by the loss. Completely devastated. But I was ‘just’ the partner to his Uncle. So even though I spent every day with him for over two years, my loss was minimized, ignored even by the rest of the family. As if I didn’t have the RIGHT to grieve for him. It still hurts to this day when I think about it.”
20. Don’t tell those that are grieving how they feel.
Those that are grief stricken don’t need nor do they want to be told how they feel. And it happens a lot. Phrases such as ‘You must be so sad.’ ‘I know how you feel.’ ‘You’ll feel better with time.’ ‘I can just imagine what you’re going through.’ Again, grief is an individual journey and it is singular to the person. They don’t want to told how they are feeling. When you don’t know what to say simply say ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ And be silent.
“I remember the priest talking with my son and he said to my son you must be so angry at God right now. And I looked at him and said no, I don’t think that is what he is feeling that at all. And being offended that someone would be so quick to tell my child what he is feeling. Ask him. Listen to him. But don’t tell him.”
Finding the best way to connect and help those in our life that are grief stricken is not an easy road to navigate. Not only is it difficult to know what to say but sometimes the most well meaning of intentions can be misconstrued or come out the wrong way. Pitching in and helping, giving them your time and, at times, your silent understanding, can go a long way to letting them know that they aren’t alone. Listen more and be aware of what you’re saying when you do speak - be careful to not tell them how they feel. Exercise compassion, remember the special dates and occasions and be sure to let them know that their loved one was not forgotten. Don’t hesitate to share the memories. It is so important that they know that others didn’t forget their loved one either.