Updated: Apr 16
Have you ever wondered what exactly to say to someone who is grieving a loss? Or maybe your intentions are to be helpful, but you don’t want to intrude, so you end up doing nothing at all? Knowing what to say and what to do for someone who is grieving or in bereavement is more of an art form than an exact science. Having some stand-by phrases you can use that are actually helpful or knowing how to help out with your actions after someone experiences a significant loss can help you feel better and contribute more meaningfully to someone experiencing bereavement. Here is a quick guide to 10 Ways to Help Those That Are Grieving.
1. Avoid the unhelpful cliches
Avoid saying things like “at least he/she’s in a better place now” or “stay strong” or “you’ll be ok after a while”. These statements, while well-intentioned, do not make the person grieving feel any better, and in fact can make them feel worse. We often say these things when we are unsure of what else to say or to mask our own discomfort with the situation.
2. Connect with the person
One thing that people going through bereavement feel is that they are alone in their pain. Don’t avoid someone who is grieving just because loss or the strong emotions associated with grief are uncomfortable for you. This says more about you and how you manage your own feelings than providing support for your friend, family member or colleague. Seek out the person who’s experienced the loss and find ways to connect meaningfully.
3. Don’t say “I know how you feel”
You may be trying to connect and share the burden of someone’s grief by saying “I know how you feel” or “I understand”, but words like these end up not as supportive as you might wish. The pain of someone’s grief makes it hard for them to even want to understand how you feel, as well as puts the focus on you instead the them.
4. Give emotional support, not advice
Grief is so individualized for every person. Even if you’re both grieving the same person/thing, you will both have vastly different grief experiences. Instead of telling someone who is grieving what to do, provide unconditional support in a caring way. Maybe that is just sitting silently with someone in lieu of talking, or even accepting where that person is in their grief process without judgement.
5. Know the grieving process
Educate yourself about grief and loss, and work towards understanding it more. The more you know about a topic, the more proficient you’ll feel about it. Grief can be a challenging subject to learn about because it brings up intense emotions that we try to stay away from, such as pain and sadness. But the more you know, the more you can support others who are grieving.
6. Ask and listen
Ask someone about their own experience(s) of the loss. How was it for them? Where were they when they heard of the loss, or did they participate in the process? Then just listen. Again, no advice-giving, just listen and share the burden or pain of the loss.
7. Be honest
If you don’t know what to say, instead of relying on old cliches say something like “I’m not sure what to say right now, but I want you to know that I care.” This authentic communication can mean more, and be more impactful, to someone who is grieving than probably 75% of what other people are telling them. Honesty facilitates connection and lets the person know that they are not alone.
8. Accept the tough emotions
If someone is feeling anger, sadness, depression, or even intense emotional pain from the loss, accept those emotions unconditionally. There is no one right way to grieve, and experiencing and naming the tough emotions are essential to getting through the grieving process. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to cry.
9. Offer practical assistance
For those who are grieving a loss, sometimes the daily details become too much to handle. If you can, offer to grocery shop, prepare a meal, or pick up kids one day. Maybe offer to take a dog on a walk, or to mow their yard. The more specific you can be with your offer of help (instead of “let me know if you need any help”), the more you’ll be taken up on your offer.
10. Provide resources
If you are worried about someone who has experienced a loss, it may be helpful to provide resources such as a grief support group or grief counseling. You can bring this up by saying something like “I’m worried that you’re not sleeping and it’s been two months. Perhaps you should consider talking to someone about this or joining a support group”. Sometimes an outside perspective may help someone get the support they need.
My hope is that this list of 10 Ways to Help Those That Are Grieving gives you some practical solutions when you’re interacting with or comforting someone who has been through a significant loss. Instead of avoiding talking about it or doing something to help, lean into the experience and you’ll find it much more rewarding for both you and the person who is grieving. If you do know of someone who is grieving after a loss, you can contact us for more information about our grief counseling.
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Shannon Heers is a psychotherapist, guest blogger, and owner of Catalyss Counseling in Englewood, CO. Shannon helps adults in professional careers manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, and grief and loss. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.