Despite being a natural part of life, dealing with a loss of a loved one and the grief that ensues is difficult as the wave of emotions you feel can be exhausting, debilitating, and destabilizing. Even those of us who have experienced a loss ourselves, are still not adequately prepared to help someone else who is going through it because we become trapped by not wanting to say the wrong thing.
Our well-intentioned attempts at helping someone through grief can put pressure on the griever and leave them feeling alone and unable to reach out. Thankfully, there are plenty of things that you can, and should, do to help a loved one deal with the loss and grief.
What You Should Expect From a Grieving Family Member, Friend or Coworker
While everyone reacts to grief differently, there are a few common ways through which it is displayed to others, the primary way being through a wide range of emotions. Your friend, coworker, or family member may experience fear, anger, numbness, and even despondency, or they may show any combination of a much wider range of feelings. It is important to note that your friend will not be emotionally stable during this time and may intensely swing from one mood to another without understanding why.
Since it does take time to fully absorb the impact of a major loss, it is very possible that your loved one may lash out at you and say things that are hurtful or mean as a result of their inability to cope with their feelings and thoughts. With this said, let’s look at what emotions may be present and some practical methods you can use to comfort someone who is grieving.
Shock, Numbness, Disbelief/Denial
One of the first emotional states that your friend is going to feel is shock, numbness or disbelief. During this time, your friend is going to fluctuate between unbearable pain, to looking like they “do not care”, to the need to be rational in order to deal with the practical concerns surrounding any funeral arrangements. Numbness is a normal reaction that our bodies put us through as a way of protecting us from experiencing the intensity of the loss, all at once. As we move through the experience, the impact of the loss will be acknowledged, and the numbness and disbelief will fade.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
To help your friend get through the initial shock, it is important to create an emotionally safe space in which they can vent their feelings. Make sure to listen openly and accept what they say without giving advice or filling in the moments of silence. Avoid telling them what to feel and acknowledge the pain they are in but do not force them to acknowledge the death. Other options to help include cooking a week or two of meals that are easy to heat up, offering to clean up their home once a week or even offer to babysit any children present.
Anxiety, Fear and Panic
Your friend may display anxiety and fear after absorbing the initial shock of the death. They may be fearful that someone else will pass away, they may not understand how they are going to survive the loss, and they may be overwhelmed with the number of administrative things that must be done. This can cause them to panic, become anxious and agitated, or even have panic attacks.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
A way to help your friend through this is to propose daily walks, encourage them to meditate or journal, or buy healthy groceries for them to keep them properly fueled. Any lack of sleep, social withdrawal, or lack of proper eating will make the anxiety worse, so these aspects need to be in check.
Guilt or Regret
It is very common, when helping someone who’s grieving, to see them go back over the years and criticize themselves for not having done more. Your friend may even try to say that they could have prevented the death in some manner by doing X or Y differently. This emotion arises when the person wants to prevent future loss or regain control. The issue here is that it is highly unlikely that they could have done anything differently, as events are not in our control.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
While it may be tempting to tell your friend outright that they were not in control and thus, shouldn’t feel guilty, this would be dismissing their feelings and would not be the right words to comfort someone grieving. Instead, redirect your initial response to asking them about what the positive aspects were about their relationship. Ask about what they did with the deceased individual; what brought joy, excitement, and laughter.
Sadness, Depression or Despair
Your friend or family member may try to isolate themselves due to feeling intense sadness. This sadness can be accompanied by deep loneliness, a feeling of emptiness and despair.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The best thing you can do is engage with them and offer avenues in which they can reconnect with the world. Send out invitations to events, encourage them to join a support group, and take them to new hobbies like cooking classes, book clubs, or local college seminars. Even drop by every few days to see how they are doing and maybe help them around the house, just to show them that they do not need to be alone in their sadness.
Whether they surface suddenly, or gradually, displays of anger, hostility and resentment are common among those grieving. Although it isn’t apparent, these outbursts are overlapping feelings of pain, frustration and helplessness that can lead to more detrimental conditions.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
It’s important to help your friend keep these emotions external, as this will keep them from developing depression, low self-esteem, guilt and even physical pain. These emotions can be externalized verbally by talking to an unbiased and non-judgmental listener, or physically via a calming activity or sport. Some effective physical outlets that won’t harm you or others, include walking or running, golf, yoga, tennis and martial arts.
Confusion or Disorganization
This is one of the scariest emotions that your friend is going to go through as they will not be able to quite get a grasp on anything. They may have disconnected thoughts that race, strong and random feelings that are overwhelming, and they may have a hard time functioning in day to day life.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
When your friend talks to you and what they say doesn’t make much sense, ask them to slow down and repeat themselves. Also ask them to write down to-do lists to help them with their day to day activities, and if critical decisions need to be made, offer a lending hand. If they are having a hard time functioning with hygiene, dressing, and eating, offer to do laundry, lay out outfits, and take them on errand runs with you.
Your friend may have an intense feeling of longing for the deceased, which may manifest in them saying things like “I miss [him/her/them] so much” or “My life is not the same without them, what am I going to do?”. It is also very probable that they will pull out old photographs and ruminate over old memories to keep their connection alive.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The best thing to do in this situation is to listen intently to the stories they share or encourage them to share memories if they want too. Asking questions about the stories and keeping them engaged can make them feel like they are loved and heard. If your friend is ruminating over old photographs, you could always get an engraved photo jewelry piece as a way to commemorate their beloved, knowing that it’ll be unique and it will never fade.
10 Major Ways To Help Support A Loved One Through Grief
1. Say or do something.
Often, grief makes people feel alone and in need of more than just a “we’re here if you need anything” statement. Making a conscious effort to show that you’re available to talk, listen, or simply be present when needed can make a world of difference. Using statements like “Do you feel like talking?” is more engaging and places you in an active position as opposed to a passive one.
After my dad passed away, a lot of people came to me to show me their support, but none of them really followed up, and I remember thinking “I wish just one person would come back and check on me.” Even a single person would have made an enormous impression just by speaking up.
2. Keep your focus on your friend - not yourself.
While listening or talking, it may be tempting to try and relate to the situation with a story of your own. In practice, this simply diverts attention onto you, putting the grieving process on hold until it diverts back. Maintaining the focus on your friend for as long as they’ll allow will allow the healing process to continue and, eventually, proceed to healing.
The one thing I found more frustrating than anything was when family friends would start reminiscing about their own loss. Even though I knew they were simply trying to show their understanding of my situation, it felt as though their stories were more important, amplifying the feeling of loneliness and making me feel bitter and resentful.
3. Being there counts no matter the relationship.
There are times when misery really does love company, just not in the usual sense of the phrase. Simply being present can give a sense of security and eliminate some of the potential loneliness that comes with loss. Even if you’ve never been close with the person who is grieving, being present will still grant that same sense of security and make a world of difference.
I remember a lot of people attended my dad’s funeral. Aunts, uncles, my best friend dropped everything that day just to be there, and even my ex joined in. The one person who stood out to me, however, was one of my high school teachers I hadn’t even seen in over 2 years. I barely remembered his name and yet him being there meant more to me than the attendance of any of the other guests.
4. Better to talk about grief than divert from it.
Opposites attract, and in this case, grief attracts healing while avoiding it perpetuates it. Don’t be afraid to talk about the deceased in any way, be it positive or negative, and try to avoid diverting away from the topic unless those grieving do so themselves. Allowing people to talk and reminisce at their own pace will help keep the grieving process in motion and make healing that much easier.
If there was one thing, I learned from seeking grief therapy, it was that it felt so much better to talk about what I was feeling rather than trying to deal with it myself. I found that I wanted to talk more and more about what was troubling me, even though it had been 4 or 5 years since my dad had died.
5. They may NOT call if they need you.
While you may insist that you are available to talk with, those who are going through the grieving process are less likely to reach out. This is because when you just say, “Call, if you need anything, I am here for you,” what your friend hears, is instead “I don’t know what else to say to you, so I am saying that I am here if needed to show support”.
Showing support like this is good, but proactively showing up at their door, bringing them breakfast, and asking them to relay their feelings is better in most circumstances.
6. Be aware of emotional triggers.
If your friend is farther along in their recovery with grief, find out if they have any triggers that bring back the negative emotions and try to be there for them when they appear. For instance, for myself, any sound of sirens from ambulances tend to send a shiver of pain right through me, as they were loud and wailing when my mother had to be transported to the hospital for one night. While she did not pass away, it was a very scary moment as she was unresponsive, and we were unsure of what would happen. Your friend may find photographs, video games, books, coffee mugs, music, pets, or television shows as triggering.
7. Be available on those special days.
Head on over to your calendar and mark down the days that may be looming over your friend’s head. If you are unsure of the dates, ask your friend and find out. In the weeks leading up to these special days, reach out often and show your friend that you care.
What I like to do is take them out for brunch and spend the day walking around in nature with a coffee or two and reminiscing about all the amazing memories that they shared with their beloved individual. Reaching out in the weeks before and after can make a huge difference in how your friend treats the day, feels on the day, and copes with the day.
8. Do not disappear on them a few weeks later.
The death of a loved one is debilitating and destabilizing, making the world feel unsafe. Reach out to your friend at least once a week and do not use busyness as an excuse not to or not knowing what to say. Invite them out to coffee and a walk or just include them in your life in some manner. When you do this consistently, your friend will feel like there is a support network there for them.
One of the worst experiences I had when my nana passed away, was watching my friend slip away because their lives had moved on and they were too busy to be there for me. Don’t disappear, because it gets noticed.
9. Give a little but do a lot.
With sadness comes loneliness and while many people will reach out to your friend with their condolences, these are not helpful in making them feel loved or surrounded with a network. Text them and say that you are thinking about them, love them (if it permits), and that you care. You do not need to write out a well-thought paragraph or agonize over word choice, because the simplest of phrases can help bring your friend out of alienation.
Second to this, after you have given a little, make sure to do a lot for them. Do not ask them how you can help, but instead mow their lawn, bring food, take them out on errand runs, pick up their children from school (tell them you are though) and be firm in your decisions. Their first reaction is going to be to refuse the help, don’t allow them too, just do it.
10. Acknowledge how bad it really is.
Personally, I find comfort in others who can acknowledge that what I am going through is a very bad experience. Whatever you do, do not tell your friend that it isn’t as bad as it could be or that it could always be worse than it is.
10 Small Ways You Can Help Your Loved One Or Friend Through Grief
There are ways in which we can help our family and friends that are grieving, small gestures of support and care that where they may seem inconsequential can actually go a long way in helping them through the grief process.
1. Offer to connect them to people who have gone through something similar or drive them to a support group.
Sometimes something as simple as leaving them a pamphlet in their mailbox or dropping it by the office is a small gesture that means a lot. It lets them know the help is there if they need it and that you are available to go with them if needed.
2. Offer ways for your friend to memorialize their loved one.
You can help them plant trees, take them to get a cremation ring done, or encourage them to write letters. There are also plenty of types of photo jewelry pendants that can be engraved with your friend’s loved one, like birthstone pendants, beaded pendants, bracelets, keychains, pets pendants, and even ones that hold cremains.
3. Offer to pay for their airline ticket if they must travel last-minute.
If you have air miles, you can use those to bring the price of the ticket down. This can help substantially since funerals can become expensive to burden.
4. Run interference to help your friend deal with the influx of people who want to show their support.
Ask if it would be okay to appoint a designated person to relay information if the show of support becomes overwhelming.
5. Educate others who are asking about your friend or loved one.
Intense loss changes one’s life and many want to know how the griever is doing. You can normalize grief by responding neutrally to those who ask by saying things like, “She has good moments and bad moments, and will continue for quite some time”. Remember that grief comes out in different ways and will change over time.
6. Send your friend gift cards to restaurants or fund their UberEATS account.
While giving food can be wonderful, your friend may not be able to muster the strength to heat it up. Gift cards are great in moments like this when they do not feel like cooking, heating up, or defrosting the many casseroles in the freezer.
7. Supply paper goods without asking.
Bring along paper plates, toilet paper, napkins, and Kleenex for them. Your friend is not going to want to do the dishes or handle the Tupperware.
8. If your friend or loved one has kids, rescue them.
Take them to a movie, bring them some toys to play with like board games and craft kits, or just simply remove them from the grief for a while. This will help ease your friend’s guilt for not being able to spend time with them.
9. Bring food that is kid friendly.
Options like fruit, waffles, juice boxes, granola bars, and lunchables will help grieving parents immensely.
10. Consider having acquaintances and family friends write out funny and lovely stories about your friend’s beloved.
While these may bring about waves of tears, they can also bring comfort and reassurance that others are missing them too.
Helping A Friend Or Family Member Through Local Settings
Take them on a vacation.
Taking your friend, loved one, or family member on a grief-cation can be liberating, as it will give them a way to escape their immediate surroundings, which may be too painful to bear, and find a sense of normalcy. When your friend travels, they may come across a certain place or item that provides a connection to their beloved, offering relief in the process.
Take them out for dinner/drinks.
Getting your friend or loved one out into the open for dinner and drinks can help them cope by getting them out of the house and into a setting that they are familiar and comfortable with. This may help them open up more or take their mind off the despair and sorrow, even for a short amount of time. It can give your friend some space to just exist without needing to remember something, plan something, or be drained by their emotions.
Invite them out.
As time wears on, it can be easy for your friend to forget about the offers of help that have been given. So, reach out to them often and invite them out to all kinds of events. While it is likely that they will say no to you, it will show them that you are there for them and that they are welcomed, loved, and wanted. It can help break up the loneliness that they feel and remind them that they have the support of those around them.
Encourage them to join group events.
This could be something as simple as encouraging them to join a yoga class in the park, joining a spinning class at the new gym, or joining a hiking group for some solitary trail walks. Or encourage them to come with you to a group outing to the movies and involve them in the movie picking process. Encouraging them to get out and socialize with people, even if it is minimal on the social end of the scale, can really provide some much-needed relief.
Encourage them to exercise.
While grief is a psychological experience, your body will still read it like an attack as it will completely drain your friend or loved one of energy, focus, and joy. Even moderate exercise can help ward off depression, boost mood, and force your friend to focus on themselves. If your friend regularly goes to a gym or sports area where they are well-known, suggest a change of scenery to ensure that they can focus on just moving themselves without being interrupted by those offering condolences.
Introduce them to a pastor/minister if they are religious.
If your friend, family member, or fellow co-worker is religious or has spoken with you about religious interests, consider introducing them to a pastor or minister at one of the local churches. This can give them an “in” to a new type of community that is supportive and give them access to resources that they may not be able to get on their own. It can also help someone through grief by surrounding them with a way to connect to or be close to their loved one, either through praying or through a spiritual journey.
Encourage them to join a local support group.
Sometimes sitting with a friend and listening to them talk is not enough for them because we cannot quite connect with them if we haven’t experienced grief ourselves or not as intensely as they are in the moment. Encouraging your friend to join a local support group with individuals who have gone through the same type of situation and range of emotions can be therapeutic for them and it can help them understand that they are not alone in their feelings and thoughts.
Practical Resources For Someone Suffering Loss
Even if your friend or family member does not require any mental health or support groups right now, they could in the future and encouraging them to check out the resources can go a long way in helping them cope with their grief.
Mental Health Resources
- HelpGuide is a non-profit mental health and wellness website that provides evidence-based information on positives steps for improving mental health, tips on healthy living, and advice on issues facing kids, teens, and parents. HelpGuide’s mission is to help individuals overcome mental and emotional issues so that they can live a fuller and happier life.
- Mental Help Hotline the SAMHSA’s national hotline is confidential, free, and available 24/7 every day of the year for treatment referral and information services for families facing mental and substance use disorders. You can call at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a 24/7, free and confidential support line for those who are in distress or require preventative and crisis resources. It is a national network of local crisis centers that provide confidential emotional support to those who are in emotional distress and is open to all. You can call them at 1-800-272-8255 or chat with them online.
- The Veterans Crisis Line is a confidential and 24/7 support line that serves all service members, veterans, national guard and reserve members and their families and friends. A trained responder will answer the call, text, or chat line and will ask a few questions to get the conversation started. You can call at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, text 838255 or use the support line for the deaf and hard of hearing at 1-800-799-4889.
- Crisis Text Line is a free and confidential support line that is available 24/7 with trained crisis counselors. Each crisis counselor is a real-life human being and is trained to help cool down individuals in the moment through active listening skills and collaborative problem solving. For those in the United States, text HOME to 741741. For those in Canada, text 686868 and for those in the United Kingdom, text 85258.
- The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) provides grief counseling and compassionate care to individuals who are grieving the loss of a loved one who has died while serving for the Armed Forces. Programs include regional survivor seminars for adults, one-on-one grief counseling, youth programs, retreats, and a national peer support network. TAPS have a 24/7 helpline which is toll-free at 800-959-TAPS (8277) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Eluna Network is a collection of camps and resources meant for children and families experiencing the loss of a loved one, across the entirety of the United States and Canada. Each camp is unique, but all offer the same, focused support from professional and caring individuals. Their website organizes the camps by country and state, and provides the location, phone number and email address for each one. In addition to this, they offer other resources such as the website www.achildingrief.com as an extra source and guide.
- Open to Hope helps people find hope after the loss of a loved one. It is an online forum that supports people going through loss and helps them cope with their pain by sharing inspirational stories of loss and love. They have a podcast, television, books, and articles available for people to read, listen to, and share in.
- The Compassionate Friends is a large network of support groups that meet together and talk, listen, and share in the grief of losing a child. Meetings contain individuals of all ages and incorporate both the loss of adult children and children alike. They also run private Facebook groups and have live chat support. You can contact Compassionate Friends toll-free at 877-969-0010.
- The Dinner Party is a worldwide community of 20-30-somethings who have experienced the loss of a partner, child, sibling, a close friend, or parent. They have over 300 peer hosts and are currently active in over 100 cities worldwide. To start the process of joining a table, you fill out an application, and you are fitted a trained dinner party host (table). You then attend the dinner table at the host’s house, eat food, and join in a conversation about loss. These are not one-off dinners, as the tables will meet every couple of months to talk, share, and listen to one another’s story.
- GriefShare provides support groups and seminars to those who are dealing with grief and recovery of a death of a loved one. Groups meet on a weekly basis, but you can join or visit a group at any time, and you can attend as many meetings as you would like. You can email at email@example.com, phone at 800-393-5755 or internationally phone at 919-562-2112.
- GriefRecoveryMethod is an evidence-based program that helps grievers deal with the pain of emotional loss. They have seven programs altogether, one which provides one on one support, another that is a support group, grief support online, a 2-day personal workshop, a pet loss support group and a loss group for dealing with a loss of a child. You can contract Grief Recovery Method at 1-800-334-7606.
While grief will appear differently on everyone, hopefully this guide has helped you find some new ways in which you can reach out and help your grieving friend feel less isolated and cared for. It is important to remember that grief is extremely complicated and will require you to be proactive in reaching out and be prepared in hearing them speak about unbearable pain. Your friend, family member, or co-worker may lash out with short-temperedness but please remember that grief is consuming and traumatic.
Ash jewelry can go a long way to helping a grieving child by giving them a touchable way to remember their loved one.
Many families choose to scatter the ashes of their loved one in places that hold special meaning.
Grief support groups on a larger scale such as grief conferences and grief retreats are a great way to connect with others that share your type of loss.
Updated October 31, 2019 by Jeri K. Augustus