How to Support a Person Dealing With Grief

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How to Support a Person Dealing With Grief

When someone you care about is dealing with grief, all you want to do is take his or her pain away.  However, you cannot.  Moreover, feelings of grief are natural and mourning the loss is a vital step in the healing process.

We will provide you with 7 simple tips on what to do (and not do) when someone you know is dealing with grief.

The foremost is knowing that you should not be afraid of seeing someone’s raw emotions, no matter how painful.  There is a beautiful African proverb that says: “Sorrow is like a precious treasure, shown only to friends.”

1.  Don’t be Afraid to Visit

Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, recently lost her beloved husband, Dave Goldberg.  In a social media post, she shared that a friend circled her house a number of times in her car, unsure of whether to enter.

The truth is that it’s hard to be around someone who is really hurting.  We struggle with what to say, what to do, how best to support them while they are dealing with their grief.  It can be tempting to simply write a note, or send a text message, so that we can avoid having to witness their suffering.

In his online post for Time magazine on June 3, 2015, Rabbi David Wolpe poignantly writes that Sheryl Sandberg’s post has something valuable to teach us:

“No one is eager to enter a hospital room or a house of mourning.  I do it all the time—it is part of my role as a rabbi—and yet so many times I have stood right outside the room, gathering up my strength for what I knew I would face. 

“The very difficulty makes the comfort that much more precious.  Reach out, let people know that you are here and that you care. 

“Show them that their suffering moves you but does not scare you.  Why else, in the end, are we put on this earth?”

We should also remember that grief does not end after the funeral is over.   On-going support from friends and family can be a tremendous comfort to a grieving person, who will likely need it for a long time to come.

Make sure to check with them on how they are coping on a regular basis.  Make mental notes of significant dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, and special holidays.  Offer people dealing with grief extra support during these particularly difficult times.

2.  Understand that People Express Grief in Different Ways

Healing from grief is a gradual process, with many different “stages” in the journey.  While psychologists have identified common mental states that occur on the journey, how an individual processes his or her loss is as unique as a fingerprint.

Bereaved persons may exhibit a variety of emotions and behaviours in their healing journey.  They may become very angry and quick to get into an argument.  They may cry constantly and become withdrawn and isolated. They may also refuse to show any emotion and act as though everything is “just fine”.

It is important to not tell bereaved people how they should be coping or chastise them for their feelings.  You should also refrain from telling them that they “must talk about it” or that you “know how they feel”.   

Again, it’s vitally important to understand that everyone grieves differently.  Bereaved people need to not feel judged for what they feel and how they express difficult feelings.

3.  Accept That You Can’t “Fix” Their Feelings

When you care about someone, it is natural to want to take away the pain and to make him or her feel better.  But when it comes to grieving, you need to accept that the grieving process is beyond your control.

Grief is not something you can “fix”.  There is nothing you can say or do that will remove the pain.  In fact, trying too hard to cheer up bereaved persons by overwhelming them with gifts or activities in an attempt to distract them from their pain could have a detrimental effect.

In order for them to get to a place of healing, they must first deal with their feelings of loss.  No one can simply leapfrog over all of the necessary stages of grief.

4.  Acknowledge Their Loss

It’s a natural response to avoid bringing up the deceased’s name or memories that might remind bereaved persons of their loss in an attempt to spare them further pain.  However, this tactic is unhelpful.

Do not try and gloss over the reality of loss and pain with platitudes like, “It was his time,” or, “She’s in a better place now.” 

Do not make empty promises like, “Things can only get better from here.”  These types of statements are a denial of the reality of the situation and are simply not helpful.

It is much better to acknowledge that they have suffered a great loss, and to tell them that you are truly sorrow for what they are going through and that you will always be there to lend a shoulder to cry on.

A few years ago, a good friend suffered the stillborn birth of her first child.  The baby was born with severe deformities, including a missing part of his skull.  My friend was understandably devastated.

Years later, when we talked about that difficult time, she said that it really hurt when well-intentioned family members and friends would try and console her by saying comments like, “It’s better this way, as he would not have had any quality of life.” 

She said that those kinds of comments made her want to scream.  She simply wanted acknowledgment of how much she loved her baby, and how much she had lost.

5.  Listen Without Judgment

When a person is dealing with grief, we often worry about what we should say or do to make them feel better.  However, simply listening with compassion and without judgment is a far greater gift than anything we could do or say.

Make sure that you let them know that they can talk to you anytime about how they are feeling.  But never demand that they tell you how they are processing their loss.  If they aren’t ready to talk, simply sitting with them in silence will be of great comfort.  Your presence is what is most important.

When they are ready to talk, actively listen to their thoughts and concerns.  Never judge what the bereaved person is saying.  Do not make statements like, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or, “You’re just being oversensitive right now,” or, “You’re just not thinking clearly given the circumstances.”  Instead, reflect back what the person is expressing to you so that they know that they are being heard.

For example, if he or she says, “I feel terrible that I wasn’t able to go to the hospital as much as I wanted to because I couldn’t get the time off work,” you would reply: “It sounds like you are struggling with feeling guilty because you weren’t there when you wanted to be.” 

Again, don’t judge whether or not the bereaved person should or shouldn’t feel the way they do.   Simply acknowledge that the feeling of guilt is something they are struggling with.

6.  Lessen the Load

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t pause when a person is dealing with grief.  Funeral arrangements have to be made, friends and family need to be notified, and the deceased’s affairs need to be set in order.

In the immediate aftermath of a loss of a loved one, such tasks can be incredibly overwhelming for the grieving person.  Offer your help wherever possible.  Let them know that they do not have to carry the burden of responsibility all on their own.

After the funeral is over, the grief will still be fresh.  A bereaved person may not be able to cope with routine day-to-day activities.  There are many ways you can make everyday life a little easier for them.  For example, you could help with mowing the lawn, walking the dog, buying groceries, cooking and childcare.

Helping with routine day-to-day activities will let the bereaved person know how much you care and give them a much-needed break.

If you are in a position to offer a helping hand, be specific about the tasks you will do and when.  (Obviously, you need to be reliable and follow through with your promises!)

7.  Know When to Seek Professional Help

It is common for a person who’s dealing with grief to feel depressed, angry, confused and withdrawn from others during their grieving process. 

However, if these symptoms are prolonged and do not fade, or if they intensify over time, then there might be a more serious problem that requires professional help.

It is important to be on the lookout for key warning signs that it might be time for you to seek professional help for your friend or relative who is struggling with grief. You should be on the lookout for:

  • Drug use or excessive drinking
  • Risky behaviour
  • Severe and prolonged depression
  • Talking about dying or suicide
  • Difficulty completing daily tasks
  • Excessive feelings of anger, sadness or guilt
  • Continued withdrawal from friends and family
  • Excessive weight loss
  • Numbness or inability to show or experience joy

Although many of these symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic loss, prolonged symptoms might indicate that there is a more serious problem that needs to be addressed.

If your friend or relative is exhibiting long-term warning signs, you should call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling for advice on what your next move should be.

Your Care and Concern Matters

In the end, the most important thing that you can do for someone dealing with grief is to be there and show them how much you care. Your presence, even if you are simply sitting in silence, is everything.

Tell them how much you love them. Listen to their pain, their frustration and anger. Listen with no judgment.  Provide them with a shoulder to cry on. 

Be the person they yell at when they don’t know what else to do.  Be the person who consistently shows up.  

And be the person that shows them that while a life may have ended, love lives on.

For more tips and resources, you can follow our Pinterest board on supporting someone who is grieving.