Best ways to support someone through grief

Photo: Margarita, 2020, “Gentle connection”

“People speak to me about my son – ‘I’m so sorry for you’ – but no one says, ‘I loved him so much.’ I was busy in grief, which I don’t expect to stop. Suddenly realizing that the last thing my son would want was for me to be very self-involved and narcissistic and self-stroking. It stopped me from writing. Which doesn’t mean you stop feeling the absence. It was being willing to think about it in a way that was not self-serving.” 

Toni Morrison

Being present to someone who is grieving is not an easy endeavour and can be intimidating.

Even when we are not the person suffering the loss, the experience touches us somehow, and in some cases, it may trigger personal losses. Witnessing someone suffering and in emotional pain can elicit discomfort, fears and feelings of inadequacy. ‘I don’t know what to say.’ ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ ‘I have never expected to be in this position to support my friend; she was always the strongest one.’

In general, in western cultures, dying, death, bereavement and grief are not something people feel fully equipped to address freely and comfortably in conversations. ‘Let’s talk about something more positive, more uplifting.’ ‘We are not there yet; we are not dead yet.’ ‘We don’t need to talk about something that is not happening now.’ ‘Thinking about death makes me sad.’

Some people will offer uplifting words to grieving people and they don’t always land well. ‘He is in a better place.’ ‘She is in heaven.’ ‘Don’t grieve. His spirit/energy will always be with you.’ These words are well intended and are even within the scope of some spiritual and religious beliefs. Especially at an early stage of grieving, they may create a greater sense of isolation because the deepest painful emotions are not embraced, validated and recognized. The person in grief misses the deceased’s physical presence. It takes time to adjust and reorient in the new reality.

Other times, the distress of grieving can lead to a volunteer isolation to recover from the overall lack of energy to do things, be around other people and, as a result, may bring up feelings of rejection and inadequacy in others. Wanting to be alone may be seen as wrong or as rejecting care and love. ’You don’t want to do things with me anymore.’ ‘Nothing I do seems to help you to feel better.’ ‘I meant to call you, but I didn’t know what to say.’ ‘You should join a gym, socialize more.’ ‘Because you didn’t text me, I thought you wanted to be alone.’

Many people may find being close to someone suffering and in emotional pain to be very uncomfortable and challenging.

Some typical reactions to the personal discomfort from watching someone in grief are:

  • trying to fix the other person’s feelings
  • avoid talking about the deceased
  • or experience low tolerance to the mood changes the person grieving shows throughout the grieving process.

One response to the discomfort of watching someone suffering can be showing little patience when the person feels sad or shuts down. Other signs of discomfort are trying to rush the pace in which the person grieves and the occasional need for space and aloneness. ‘You are living in the past.’ ‘You need to move forward; it’s time for you to focus on the future.’ ‘You are so distant. I don’t know how to help you.’

Grief is not something that just happens for a short time and goes away

Grief is an ongoing process that can last a lifetime. On the other hand, a person who is still consistently grieving more than two years after a death, similarly or the same as to how they were mourning a week or a month right after the death, they may be experiencing what is known as complicated grief. These people may need extra attention. How?  By helping them expand their behavioural repertoire with a compassionate approach that gently invites them to re-engage to do things they used to enjoy.

Six practical ideas we can use to help someone who is grieving:

Send something

Flowers and plants are lovely; however, they need care and attention. During the initial weeks and months, the person is not in the best place emotionally and doesn’t have the energy to take care of other things, let alone they hardly have the energy to take care of themselves.

What are some of the most helpful things to send?

  • Home-cooked meals
  • Remembrance items
  • Food and home staples
  • Thoughtful cards and letters
  • Gift cards to somewhere practical or self-care related
  • Items that belonged to the person
  • Care box with self-care items
  • Photos
  • House cleaning services
  • Get away place
  • Lawn care services
Offer practical support with the day to day minutia

‘Let me know how I can help’ is a kind gesture, and sometimes the person grieving can identify something they need, however most of the time they feel numb, foggy, lacking energy. 

Offer something to do that you feel skillful and comfortable doing and that you may even enjoy.

  • Lend a hand with little tasks, such as doing groceries or driving
  • Help with babysitting children or pets.
  • Help the bereaved sort through a loved one’s belonging.
  • Help to clean out the house
  • Help with yard work or laundry.
  • Help with odd jobs around the house.
  • Teaching the person how to handle new tasks and responsibilities, such as finances, lawn care, cooking, etc.
  • Send meals.
  • Give them a place to stay when they don’t want to stay alone in their home.
  • Stay over their place and make breakfast in the morning.
  • Accompany them on certain outings.
  • Go for walks with them.
  • Stay over and watch movies with them.
Be there
  • Physically show up during the bereaved’s time of need.
  • Continue to check in regularly via text message or phone.
  • Regularly offer a simple “I love you” or “I’m thinking of you.”
  • Share meals with the bereaved when they knew they were struggling to eat alone.
  • Call just to talk.
  • Ask them if they want to be left alone instead of making the assumption and not calling or texting.
  • Offer a real hug.
  • Offer sincere and simple words of support and encouragement ‘I know this is hard and I am here with you.’ ‘It’s OK to cry and to be sad. I know this is not easy. I trust you’ll be fine.’
Be there to help them take a break

During grieving, most people will sway between connecting with the sadness of the loss and avoiding the sense of loss. 

At times, they wish to feel a sense of normalcy and have a respite from the grief. It’s a healthy way to cope with suffering. When this happens, do not minimize the loss, move on or forget the loss the person experiences. 

What are some of the things you can do when the grieving person wants distraction?

  • Laughter.
  • Sharing positive memories of their loved one.
  • Taking them out for a meal, a movie night or to the theatre.
  • Taking them to other recreational outings that are not excessively crowded or loud.
  • Accompanying them to parties or other social gatherings knowing that they may wish to leave earlier.
Be willing to be there with them during the sad and uncomfortable moments

Most people grieving appreciate when someone is willing to go to the deepest places in their hearts without trying to fix, change or judge. 

Being there for someone who is grieving means letting the person feel they can be emotionally naked and vulnerable without worries of being forced to ‘do better and to heal faster.’

What are the things you can do to be fully present?

  • Hold a gentle and quiet space for the tears, anger, and outbursts.
  • Let the person fall apart and reassure them you can contain their feelings. Sometimes holding their hands or a gentle touch is enough.
  • Sit silently and offer your company.
  • Talk about the person who died.
  • Mention the name of the person who died often, share memories, bring them up.
  • Let the bereaved person cry when it happens spontaneously.
  • Offer validation.
  • Normalize the experience.
  • Listen with compassion and kindness.
  • Ask permission before you offer advice or an opinion.
  • Accept the person’s grief months and even years later.
Remember: don’t forget the deceased and the grief

People who experience the loss of a loved one need support in the years to come, not only right the aftermath of the loss. 

Days like anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, mother’s day and father’s day, weddings, and graduations may forever feel between sad to bittersweet.

What are the things you can do to let the person grieving that you didn’t forget?

Mark in your calendar or phone the critical dates, such as the birthday of the deceased, the day of their death, and other important anniversaries to the person grieving so you can get a reminder of the important dates and you don’t need to rely solely on your memory.

  • Send a card on special or meaningful days.
  • Check-in on the days that may be difficult.
  • Recognize that certain times of the year, such as the month when the loved one died, may be difficult.
  • Offer your companionship.
  • Continue to share memories, ask about stories and talk about their loved one.
  • Continue to randomly check in with the person, ask to do things together.
  • Acknowledge that happy and joyful days may be somewhat bittersweet, such as getting a promotion, starting a new relationship, having a newborn, getting married, etc.
  • Acknowledge that the person who died is always within them.

“Perhaps our dreams are there to be broken, and our plans are there to crumble, and our tomorrows are there to dissolve into todays, and perhaps all of this is all a giant invitation to wake up from the dream of separation, to awaken from the mirage of control, and embrace whole-heartedly what is present. Perhaps it is all a call to compassion, to a deep embrace of this universe in all its bliss and pain and bitter-sweet glory. Perhaps we were never really in control of our lives, and perhaps we are constantly invited to remember this, since we constantly forget it. Perhaps suffering is not the enemy at all, and at its core, there is a first-hand, real-time lesson we must all learn, if we are to be truly human, and truly divine. Perhaps breakdown always contains breakthrough. Perhaps suffering is simply a right of passage, not a test or a punishment, nor a signpost to something in the future or past, but a direct pointer to the mystery of existence itself, here and now. Perhaps life cannot go ‘wrong’ at all.”

Jeff Foster