It can be difficult to know what to say or do when someone has experienced a loss. It is a delicate subject to approach since we do not want to say the wrong thing or come off as intruding or prying towards someone who is grieving. We don’t want to add to anyone’s pain, so sometimes we go back and forth between being present and supportive, to taking a step back and giving a person their space to cope. Both of these can be beneficial for the other person, but our uncertainty about how to respond can make us feel unhelpful or that we are adding to their pain. When it comes to offering support, however, being present and available to help or spending time with them can be healing.

What else can we do to be supportive during this difficult time? Here are a few practical ideas of how to help a friend or family member who is grieving:

 

  1. Know what “normal” grief is and how to respond check out my last article for a primer
    • Know that there is no one right way to grieve, every response and emotion is valid; people who are grieving may feel relief, guilt, anger, emptiness, sadness, etc. These emotions may be intense or extreme or they may be more mild. Be prepared for any reaction, and know that the reaction isn’t about you, it’s a response to pain.
    • There is no timeline or linear process to grief; each grief process is unique. People will cope in whatever way feels right for them and will take as long as they need.

 

  1. Expressing support
    • Be empathetic by acknowledging the bereaved individual’s feelings (e.g. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you). Showing acceptance and support of their emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, or otherwise, can provide a safe space for the person to experience their emotions openly.
    • Give them space to tell their story. The person may want to discuss the details of their loss repeatedly or in detail as a way to come to terms with what has happened.
    • Reach out to the person who is grieving whether it be through a phone call or an in-person visit. Remember them as time goes on and check in. Many times, people respond immediately and then support fades quickly.
    • Avoid saying things like: “Everything happens for a reason”, “They’re in a better place”, “At least…”, “It’s time to move on”, “I know how you feel”, “You can always have another child/get another job/get remarried”, “Time heals all wounds.” Avoid finding a silver lining to the loss or trying to fix what’s happened.
    • Instead, say things like: “I’m here for you.”, “I don’t know what to say, but I care.”, “I’ll call you/visit in a few days.”, “What can I do?”, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
    • Saying nothing and just listen. It’s okay to listen or just be present with the other person. Sometimes there’s nothing at all that we can And certainly, whatever we say is unlikely to make the situation better.

 

  1. Providing practical support can be very helpful, such as offering to:
    • Help with arrangements related to the loss, such as funeral arrangements, packing, finding a new place to live, etc.
    • Complete household chores or run errands
    • Cook or drop off meals in non-reusable containers so they don’t have to worry about washing your dishes and getting them back to you
    • Watch their children or pets if needed, giving them time for themselves
    • Help with insurance or other paperwork
    • Answer or make phones calls or for them
    • Take them out for a meal or a movie

 

  1. Watch for signs of depressed feelings or complicated grief
    • We’ll take as long as we need to cope with our loss, but we do need to eventually come to terms with what has happened. Over time, we’ll adjust to a new normal and be able to move forward. However, sometimes we don’t move on and get stuck, which is called complicated grief which involves:
      • Being unable to move on from the loss
      • Being unable to carry out daily routines
      • Isolating ourselves
      • Having feelings of intense loneliness, numbness, or sorrow
      • Wishing to be dead with the loved one who has passed

 

Depression can also occur and is often a part of complicated grief. The challenge with depression and complicated grief is they can be hard to tease apart, and often co-exist. Both can come in waves, or be constant companions.

If you’re noticing a complexity in the grief of a loved one, or signs of depression, then it’s best to encourage your loved one to seek out mental health support such as counselling. This can provide a space for emotions and thoughts related to the loss to be processed and allow for healing to occur. It can also provide an invaluable resource for depression and trauma screening by experienced professionals who can direct care most appropriately.

A loss isn’t something that can be fixed or repaired; it is something that has to be lived with. The pain cannot be taken away, so instead, we can help others by sitting with them in their pain. It is okay not to know what to say or how to help; if we can show up, listen, and be present, then that’s enough, and is valuable!

 

 

 

References

Complications of Grief. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/aa129291

Grief and Loss Resources. (2017). Retrieved from https://livingthroughloss.ca/

Helping Someone Who’s Grieving. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/helping-someone-who-is-grieving.htm