Grief can be a heavy and unpredictable experience. Even though it’s a natural part of life and death, most people feel uncertain when helping someone else. Supporting a friend through grief may make you feel tongue-tied and unsure of what to say.
Your friend’s grief can be affected by many factors like the cause of death, the deceased person’s age, and your friend’s personality. Grief is unique for everyone, and accepting your friend as they will make it easier on them. Of most importance is making sure your friend isn’t harming themselves or getting stuck in unresolved grief for long periods of time.
This guide will help you find several simple ways to support a grieving friend. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and following a few basic guidelines will make a big difference for your friend.
1. Understand There is No Timetable for Grieving
Your grieving friend's emotions and behavior might be all over the place. By reminding them and yourself that there is no time limit, you reduce the chances of unintentionally pushing your friend into thinking they should be grieving in any particular way.
It's all too common for people to push their own ideas about grief onto other people. Be that one different person in their life that lets them grieve freely. Your grief experience would be different from theirs, so appreciating this will help you give them the support they need.
2. Acknowledging the Severity of Their Loss
As a friend, your first reaction may be to try to minimize the loss by saying something like, "it'll be OK," and, "you'll get through it, you'll bounce back before you know it." These comments can seem comforting, but they actually diminish the severity of the person's loss by your standards.
Instead, take your cue from your friend. They may give you an idea of how significant the loss truly is for them and how strongly it is affecting them. Your friend may not be able to define the impact right away, and this uncertainty is a normal part of grief. Simply acknowledge what they are telling you and that you have heard them.
3. Reach Out to Your Friend
Just the act of reaching out can be a significant method of support. Many types of loss go completely unacknowledged beyond the griever, so simply recognizing that your friend is going through this experience is essential. Be prepared for a variety of possible reactions to your outreach.
Your friend may be receptive, indifferent, or not ready to acknowledge their grief. If they don't respond much to you, it does not mean that they don't appreciate your effort to connect with them. It may speak more to their readiness to engage with someone. Do not let this stop you from reaching out. You may not know how significant your effort was until sometime later.
4. Let Your Friend Talk about Their Loss
At some point, your friend may be ready to speak out more openly about their loss. However, this can be days, months, or maybe even years after the loss has occurred. When that time comes, remember that all you can do is be a caring listening person. If it helps, ask them questions to encourage more conversation.
Allow their conversation to come naturally, even if it's very brief. You do not need to provide answers or know how to fix their struggle to be helpful. In many cases, there is no real fix, only learning to live with it. By presenting them with a safe listening environment, you help them carry their loss for one more day.
5. Tell or Show Them You Care
Grief can sometimes be so overwhelming and disorienting that your friend may have trouble putting anything into words. They may have difficulty engaging in conversation or paying attention no matter what the topic. Still, they will benefit from knowing that you care.
You may find small ways to do this by saying something caring to them, writing it in a note, or giving a gentle touch or hug. Relieving them of daily activities such as grocery shopping for running errands may also be appreciated. Even if your friend isn't ready to talk much yet, they will feel your care and concern.
6. Be Prepared for Strong Reactions
Your friend may show their grief in ways you don’t expect. Some expressions can be intense and possibly destructive like yelling or breaking objects. Anger and frequent crying can also occur. These reactions can be surprising, but your friend's expression of grief is likely to change over time.
Be aware of risky behavior like excessive drinking or uncontrolled spending. If anything like this happens, be patient and supportive. Make it clear you have concerns about their actions, but also recognize their struggle.
7. Offer to Connect Them with Others in Grief
As previously noted, grief can be very isolating, and your friend may have difficulty verbalizing their struggle. Offer to connect them with others who may share a similar experience. This can be particularly important if they are grieving a loss with complex circumstances like suicide, miscarriage, or addiction.
Social media has made it easier than ever to find people all over the world. Help them look up Facebook pages, forums, or blogs. You may also find local support groups that specialize in their particular situation. Grief is not a mental disorder, but seeing a therapist with a specialty in grief counseling can be helpful.
8. Avoid Overly Positive or Negative Labels
Grief is always multifaceted, and so are the people and situations involved. Rarely is any person either a true saint or a complete failure. Everyone has virtues and faults, and authentic grief can reflect all of these aspects.
Take cues from your friend and acknowledge what they emphasize. They may want to talk about how mad they are about how their loved one didn't take care of their health. Or they might feel like going through warm and comforting memories instead.
9. Stay Connected
Your friend’s grief may make you uncomfortable, so remain aware of your reactions. You may feel hesitant to spend time with them, especially if they are struggling a lot with their emotions. Even if they are rather quiet about their grief, don't make the mistake of assuming you aren’t needed anymore.
Rather than avoiding your friend, make an effort to reach out again and again. It may be a while before they resemble the fun-loving friend you know. But as you keep your connection going, they will eventually find their spark again.
10. Be Considerate of Your Friend’s Faith Life
A friend who relies strongly on their face may be comforted by offers of prayer or religious condolences. However, be cautious of pushing your own spirituality onto them. Even if they are religious, some of the more common comments may not feel comforting at the moment.
Your friend may feel angry or disillusioned about their faith for a period of time. Or if your friend does not have faith beliefs, they may not feel like spirituality fits them at all. If they are at a place where they can discuss this, their viewpoint can come through without you imposing anything.
11. Offer to Do Anything for Them
It’s easy for people to throw out the phrase, “Let me know if there's anything I can do for you.” The hard part is following through with action. If you say this to your friend, be prepared to really do what they ask.
Come up with a few simple ways to help and offer them immediately. Don’t even wait to ask for ideas. They could be so overwhelmed they’ll struggle to remember it all. Small tasks like feeding pets or offering to bring them a meal can make a big difference for someone who has enormous emotional weight on their shoulders.
12. Be Aware of Cultural or Religious Activities
For some people, cultural traditions and norms become part of their grief process. Some cultures include celebrations, others perform rituals and observe specific periods of mourning. Be aware if your friend may be involved in any of these activities.
Even if you aren’t invited to participate, your cultural sensitivity can mean a lot to your friend. If you aren't familiar with these activities, ask your friend to tell you more. An open conversation like this can be therapeutic.
13. Be an Information Shield or Gatekeeper
Sometimes a loss can be so sudden and intense that a newly grieving person can feel stuck in the spotlight of attention. Everyone wants to know what's happening and what they can do. This frenzy can become overwhelming, even if most of these questions come from a sense of concern.
You may know enough of the same people that it makes sense to be an information gatekeeper. Ask your friend if this is something you can do, and take note of what your friend is ready for now. Perhaps they enjoy reading cards and written messages but find conversation difficult. As your friend feels more comfortable managing their grief each day, they may not need your shielding actions as much.
14. Recognize that Loss Cannot Be Fixed
When things go wrong, most people start fixing problems. But with grief, there’s often nothing tangible to fix, no reparation for what or who was lost. Grief is about recognizing and learning to live with the loss every day.
Reassure them that you are there to walk with them in their grief. Do what you can to repair physical objects like homes and property. Practical activities like sorting through belongings or photos are less exhausting when done with a friend. While these actions won’t fix the loss, they will help your friend live with it more easily.
Helping a Grieving Friend
Grief isn’t easy to bear, and helping a friend through their loss can be challenging for both of you. Acceptance, listening, and availability will go a long way toward helping your friend adjust to their loss.
If the process becomes too overwhelming, your friend might find it helpful to work with a grief counselor as well.
- “Understanding Grief and Loss.” Cancer.net, 3/2018, www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/grief-and-loss/understanding-grief-and-loss