Supporting Someone Who Is Grieving
Ways to support someone who is bereaved
We all want to be there for the people we care about when they are grieving, but often we are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. This is understandable, because the circumstances around every death is unique and likewise everyone’s journey through grief is different. What is helpful, supportive or comforting for one person may be less so for another.
There are many interesting and informative books about grief and grieving, written by both experts in the field and by ordinary people who have experienced the death of someone close to them. These contain a wealth of information, advice and anecdotes that might just help you to navigate this difficult path. This section draws from some of these resources to give you ideas about how to provide support for the bereaved person.
Finding the right words can be difficult. Most people are frightened of saying the wrong thing or causing distress by mentioning the name of the person who has died. It may feel safer or easier to avoid someone who is bereaved or to say nothing. However, this can leave the bereaved person feeling alienated or isolated. Be honest, admit that you are struggling to find the right words, but tell them that you want to let them know that you are thinking of them. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died, most people want to talk about their loved one and keep their memory alive. Be sensitive and look for cues to see how what you are saying is being received. In her book ‘Grief Works’, grief psychotherapist Julia Samuels suggests that if you can see you have said the wrong thing, just say ‘I’m sorry, I can see that what I have said has upset you’.
Sending an email, text, letter or condolence card is a lovely way to let the person know that you are thinking of them. Then they can read it when they are ready (for some people this may be many months, or even years, later and for others it will provide comfort straight away). They can also revisit it in the future when the initial flurry of support has lessened and there is time to really take in the words, particularly if they are treasured memories or amusing anecdotes.
Don’t worry if you did not send a message straight away. Hearing from friends, relatives or acquaintances at any time can make someone feel less alone and it brings comfort to know that people are still thinking about them. In her book ‘A Friend Indeed’, Amy Florian gives lots of examples of how to word condolence cards and letters. Amongst them you may find the right words for you and the person you are writing to.
Offer practical help (food, childcare/school run, dog walking, taking the bins out, etc). Be specific about what you can do, but be sure to listen to what they need. Keep offering and keep helping. It may be many months, or longer, before someone who is bereaved is able to function again in the way they used to. Grief can be all consuming and exhausting, leaving little time and energy for the tasks of everyday living.
A Listening Ear
Sometimes it’s best to say nothing, just let them talk. Acknowledge their grief and don’t minimise it by try to make them feel better with platitudes or by comparing their experience to your own. Again, allow the person to talk as and when they need to, for as long as they need to. In their book ‘We All Know How This Ends’, Anna Lyons and Louise Winter emphasise that you can’t take away their pain but being there for them and just sitting with them in their grief is enough.
A thoughtful and well-chosen gift can let someone know that you are thinking of them. If you can’t find the right words, a gift lets someone know you care. Send a scented candle or keepsake, a tree or shrub to plant in memory of the person who has died or something that you know will bring a little light into their lives. Whatever you send, it is always nice to say that you do not expect a response. Don’t take it personally if they do not thank you or reply. It won’t be that they aren’t touched or grateful, just that they have, of course, other things on their mind.
Whiteballoon Condolence Cards & Gifts and Personal Touches & Keepsakes Inspiration pages have lots of ideas and suggestions.
Remember Key Dates & Anniversaries
As time passes, try to remember key dates and anniversaries. Not just the anniversary of the death, but birthdays too or perhaps on Mothering Sunday for someone who has lost their mother. One of the hard things for the bereaved is that the rest of the world quickly moves on, whereas for them everything has changed and will never be quite the same again, and this can be very isolating. So, be guided by the person and the circumstances of their loss. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you are not sure what to say or do but that you would like to help. Be there for them, not just in the short term but for as long as it takes.