How to support someone who’s grieving

How to support someone who’s grieving

Knowing what to say when someone you love loses someone they love can be incredibly hard.  You start typing out a text, then delete it.  You start to call, then hang up.  You want to say something profound and soothing, but all that comes out is, ‘I’m so sorry’.  It can make you feel useless and awkward – but that doesn’t help anybody.  The truth is, there isn’t really anything that you CAN say that will make that much of a difference.  So there’s no use beating yourself up for not finding the right words.  Most likely what your loved one needs isn’t the ‘right’ words anyway – what they likely need is just love and listening.  How best to do that?  There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way, but here are some things I’ve found helpful. 

1.Listen to their stories 

Often your loved one might want to speak about the person they’ve lost but people around them might not know how to listen, for fear that they won’t be able to handle the emotions that come up.  I once had a friend tell me how some of her friends would change the subject every time she brought up a story relating to her dad, whom she had just lost.  She then felt hurt and unsupported, on top of grieving.  Don’t let your fear of getting it wrong get in the way.  If your friend starts speaking about the person they lost, ask questions about the person, show your interest. Laugh if the story is funny.  If you have shared memories of the person, it may be very comforting for your loved one to reminisce together with you.  If at any point you’re not sure whether it’s making them feel better or worse, just ask!  It’s perfectly ok to say, ‘Is it ok for you to talk about this?’ or ‘Let me know if this is too upsetting and we can talk about something else.’  

2. Check in in small ways

Let your loved one know you’re thinking of them, even if you don’t have time to talk. Your friend is dealing with a loss and grief can be incredibly lonely.  Also, as mentioned above, some people in their life might pull back – to avoid heavy or intense emotions due to their own fears – so their support network might not be as present as they’d like. Checking in might be as simple as a ’Thinking of you. How are you?’ text, sending a picture that makes you think of them, or even just a heart emoji.  Whatever it is, let that person know you haven’t forgotten them or their grief.  

3. Don’t judge yourself, just ask

At the risk of sounding repetitive, there is no right or wrong way to grieve and everyone will need supporting in different ways.  When you don’t know what to do or aren’t sure if you’re being helpful – it is always, always, always ok to ask. If you’re getting too in your head about what you’re doing or saying, just imagine yourself being the equivalent of a human hug. We all know what a good hug feels like. Be warm, be kind, be still. Hold space for your loved one in a way that’s supportive and based on their needs, not suffocating, distant or based on your needs. 

4. Be silly, sometimes

Not every conversation after a loss has to be deep and meaningful or about your loved one’s grieving.  Sometimes your loved one might want to be distracted.  They might want to be reminded that they can still laugh.  They might even feel that on some level, you cracking a joke gives them the permission to laugh that they can’t give themselves.  Laughing can loosen the grip of their mourning, even if just for a moment.  Obviously be sensitive with this and tread very gently, but again – it’s always ok to ask your loved one what would help. You might find they go from giggles to tears within the same breath.  All of that is ok.   

5. Remember that grief is messy

Grieving is not a linear process.  Your loved one might seem fine one day and barely able to get out of bed the next. That’s ok. Don’t expect that because a certain amount of time has passed, your friend should be feeling a certain way.  Everyone grieves at their own pace. Also don’t assume that you know what their relationship was with the person they lost and therefore what they will be feeling.  They may be feeling a whole range of complicated emotions – sad, angry, resentful, etc – and those can come up at any time.  Also don’t assume that because the person they lost had a specific role in their life, that they will feel a certain way about losing that person.  A person’s impact can go far beyond the narrow confines of how society defines a relationship – parent, friend, boss, mentor, sister, all have certain connotations but they are never the full story of what that relationship means to an individual. Do your best to hold space for any emotions that come up.  And ask your loved one how they’re doing 3 months, 6 months, 18 months from now.  No matter how much time has passed, they’ll be grateful you asked. 

6. Signpost / Know your limits

It’s important to remember that you’re (likely) not a professional grief counsellor, coach, or therapist.  You’re a loving, caring, and supportive person with your own emotions and your own tank to fill.  It’s perfectly ok – and very much advised! – to encourage your friend to seek professional support when they’re going through a time like this.  You may find that in supporting them, you also need someone professional to talk to. That’s also a great idea.  The whole ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ is a cliche (and an important safety strategy!) for a reason. You can’t support anyone else if you’re running on empty.  Care for yourself and your needs, as well as encouraging your loved one to do the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *