For Friends, Family & Community Members: Supporting Those Who Are Grieving
When someone you care about is grieving, it can be tough to know what to say or do. It’s common to feel helpless, awkward or unsure. You may be afraid of intruding, saying the wrong thing, or making the person feel even worse. Or maybe you feel there’s little you can do to make things better. You are also dealing with your own grief, and the need to heal.
While you can’t take away the pain of the loss, you can provide much-needed comfort and support. There are many ways to help a grieving family member or friend, starting with letting the person know you care. Consider sharing these suggestions with other family members, friends, neighbors, or members of the community who may appreciate guidance in supporting a grieving family.
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages. It can be an emotional rollercoaster, with unpredictable highs, lows and setbacks. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling the bereaved what they “should” be feeling or doing.
- Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair and fear are common. A grieving person may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at loved ones, or cry for hours on end. Don’t judge them or take their grief reactions personally.
- There is no set timetable for grieving. For many people, grief after bereavement typically takes 18 to 24 months, but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter. Don’t pressure the bereaved to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow their healing.
Listen With Compassion
Almost everyone worries about what to say to people who are grieving. But knowing how to listen is much more important. Often, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or mentioning the deceased person. However, the bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged, that it’s not too terrible to talk about, and that their loved one won’t be forgotten.
While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let the bereaved know they have permission to talk about the loss. Talk candidly about the person who died and don’t steer away from the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. Invite the grieving person to openly express his or her feelings. Try simply saying, “I’m here if you want to talk.”
- Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Let the grieving person know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down.
- Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
- Let the bereaved talk about how their loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death for some.
- Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what they are feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. However, don’t give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to theirs.
- It’s OK to cry with the grieving person.
Supporting a Grieving Child
Young children feel the pain of bereavement, but they learn how to express their grief by watching the adults around them. After a loss – particularly of a sibling – children need support, stability and honesty. They also need extra reassurance that they will be cared for and kept safe. As an adult, you can support children through the grieving process by demonstrating that it’s okay to be sad and helping them make sense of the loss.
Answer any questions children may have as truthfully as you can. Use very simple, honest and concrete terms when explaining death to a child. Children, especially young children, may blame themselves for what happened and the truth helps them see they are not at fault.
Open communication will smooth the way for a child to express distressing feelings. Children often express themselves through stories, games and artwork — encourage this self-expression, and look for clues in those activities about how they are coping.
How parents can help a grieving child
- As soon as possible after the death, set time aside to talk to your child.
- Provide professional support for your child; talk to your family doctor or your child’s school counselor for a referral to a child therapist.
- Give your child the facts in a simple manner – be careful not to go into too much detail. Your child will ask more questions as they come up in his/her mind.
- The explanation that worked best for some of our members with young children was that death occurs when someone’s body stops working, with reassurance that this will not happen to them and that it usually happens when people are very old.
- Allow your child, however young, to attend the funeral if he or she wants to.
- Convey your spiritual values about life and death with your child.
- Meet regularly as a family to find out how everyone is coping. Talk about feelings, such as: sad, angry, feeling responsible, scared, tearful, depressed, worried, etc.
- Use the given name of the deceased when speaking of him or her.
- Be willing to hear and discuss your child’s feelings and encourage him or her to talk about the person who died. Recalling memories (both good ones and not so good ones) might have great value to one child while others might not be ready to talk about the person. Be conscious of their response.
- Write down memories of the child because every single memory you have will be treasured.
- Help children find ways to symbolize and memorialize the deceased person.
- Keep your child’s daily routine as normal as possible.
- Pay attention to the way a child plays; this can be one of a child’s primary ways of communicating.
- Watch out for “bad dreams.” Are they occurring often? Talk about the dreams.
- Watch for behavioral changes in your child both at home or at school.
What not to do
- Don’t force a child to publicly mourn if he or she doesn’t want to.
- Don’t give false or confusing messages, like “Sally went to sleep.”
- Don’t tell a child to stop crying because others might get upset.
- Don’t try to shield a child from the loss. Children pick up on much more than adults realize. Including them in the grieving process will help them adapt and heal.
- Don’t stifle your tears; by crying in front of your child, you send the message that it’s okay for him or her to express feelings, too. At the same time, try not to sob or lose control in front of your child; it’s too scary for him or her.
- Don’t turn your child into your personal confidante. Rely on another adult or a support group instead.
- Don’t tell a child they have grieved too long or to “get over it.”
For additional information on what to say to a grieving child, visit What to Say to Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One.