By Pamela Blair, Ph. D.
A death has occurred, and you are reading this article because you want to help at a time when your friend or family member is feeling sad, disoriented and helpless. We often don’t know how to relate to someone who is grieving, or we eventually become worn out from being around someone who is sad. Their grieving might seem so overwhelming that you may feel inclined to turn away from the situation. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing, or perhaps the death brings up certain memories or fears for you. You know that if you turn away or do the wrong thing at a time like that, you might damage the relationship you have with the bereaved or cause more pain. You want to help, but don’t know where to begin.
Helping a grieving friend will not be an easy task. But, there are practical things you can do to be supportive. Keep in mind that the greatest support you can offer is to stay by your friend or loved one through this trying ordeal. You may need to give more of yourself, be more patient, give more time and love than you ever have. Naturally you’re concerned and want to help in specific ways. Hopefully this article will assist you in feeling less adrift as you are challenged to help your loved one navigate unfamiliar oceans of sadness and strong currents of grief. You have an opportunity to be a most valuable touchstone for sanity during an extremely difficult time.
While expressions of love and kind words will mean a lot to the person who is grieving, offering to help them manage some practical matters that must be taken care of in a timely fashion will not only let them know how much you care, but assure them that they are not alone in their grief.
Organize teams to help
Those who have lost a loved one have said that if they had to do it over again that they would have gathered a team of friends or family members in the community to handle various tasks. In her book, “Mom Minus Dad,” Jameison Haverkampf describes what she calls an “energy team” to take on certain tasks to provide the energy the bereaved is lacking. For example, perhaps one person could take on the assignment of keeping track of the gifts of food, donations to charitable organizations and any other assistance provided so the family members can send thank you notes when they are ready.
Haverkampf says, “The energy team members can initially gather the rest of the team members with the family to meet and discuss the family’s needs and specific requests and introduce themselves to each other. This meeting can also function as a brainstorming session to make a list of others to fill empty positions. By setting up this meeting, the family can state their wishes once to everyone involved, freeing up their energy to tend to their grief and other needs.”
You can offer to be the hospitality director for guests, especially when family and friends come from out-of-town for the funeral. As friends and relatives drop by to offer their condolences you might serve as the liaison between the bereaved and their visitors. Other helpful gestures include managing the food that friends and neighbors bring by, screening incoming phone calls and generally helping to keep things organized.
What would the deceased have wanted?
While those that die a lingering death may have wills and have told the living what kind of funeral and burial they desire, sometimes a person who died suddenly never had a chance to voice their desires. This presents an extra burden on loved ones since they must go ahead with arrangements assuming what their loved one wanted. With your own emotional levels challenged, these decisions become even harder. It might be helpful to gather a group of close friends and family and calmly discuss how they “think” the person would like to be remembered. Although your input may be considered, in all circumstances it is best to leave the final decision to the spouse, or nearest relatives.
Make a list
You might consider helping the bereaved make a list of things that need to be done. This could include everything from bill paying to watering the plants. Help them prioritize these by importance, and then you and your friends or family can offer to help with what is most important. Perhaps the bereaved has a calendar on the refrigerator or an electronic scheduler you can refer to that indicates what appointments they have scheduled. Unless they relate to the funeral plans or matters of oppressing nature, you might offer to reschedule or cancel these appointments for them.
As a way to get you started with a list, here are some things that need to be dealt with in a timely manner:
- Notify family and friends. The deceased’s address book can be helpful.
- If they have children, their school (or summer camp) needs to be notified.
- Contact their lawyer and/or the executor of the will (if you know there is a will). If there is no will, contact a lawyer for guidance.
- Choose a funeral home to assist in arrangements.
- If you’ve chosen a charity in lieu of flowers, make this known to the public.
- Call the newspaper and arrange for the obituary and notice of funeral plans.
- Contact the family clergy person or counselor.
- Obtain multiple copies of the death certificates from city or town offices.
- Contact insurance companies (they will need death certificates).
Take care of the minutia of life
A death has occurred, but the minutia of life continues. Your bereaved loved one still has to eat, return library books, wash clothes, load the dishwasher and pay bills. Take a look around the person’s home and help them pick up some of the slack—even small gestures of help will make a big difference. You can help by keeping the house stocked with healthy foods that are already prepared or easy to prepare. Do some laundry, walk the dog, feed the cat or take over an errand or 2 so the bereaved can rest.
Handle phone calls, mail and email
You may want to help the person make initial phone calls to immediate family and friends. After that, there will be arrangements and further information about time and place that must be shared. Getting that information out is another way you can help.
Immediately following the death, offer to contact anyone that your loved one wants notified. The immediate family is usually informed about the death soon after it happens, but there are friends and extended family members that need to be notified as well. These calls can be overwhelming for a grieving person. Making these phone calls will be an invaluable gift to your friend.
A flood of incoming calls, cards and email may be arriving at the bereaved’s home. You can offer to take messages, check (or send) emails and answer the phone. Most people who make a condolence call in person or on the phone don’t expect to speak directly with the family, but they are anxious to express their sympathy. You can help keep track of these contacts in a notebook that your friend or family member can look at when they are up to it. Or, you can let them know who is at the door or calling and they can then make the decision to talk with the caller or not.
What about the children?
If the bereaved has small children, you might want to offer to care for them—either in their home or yours. Or, arrange for a responsible sitter to be available. While it is in a parent’s nature to help and care for their children, at this trying time they may barely have enough energy to care for themselves. Please keep in mind that the children may also be grieving, and depending on their age, they might need to be close by one or both of their parents. In either case, it is very important to consider their needs. Very young children will not have a concept of what death is or a way to understand the grief of those around them. However, toddlers and even babies will pick up on the tension and stress. Older children and teenagers may express anger or isolate themselves. They may want to be with their own friends instead of the family. Give them space as well as tender guidance. Try not to force them into situations that cause them discomfort or further confusion.
Help with thank you notes
At some point after the funeral and burial of their loved one, your friend will need to deal with the task of writing thank you notes for the kindness shown and any donations given. You might offer to help however you can with the thank you notes (buying the notes, addressing, stamping, taking them to the post office).
Be prepared for emotions
No human being is without feelings. From a baby’s first cry to a dying person’s last look at friends and family, our primary response to the world around us is colored by emotion. Whether that world seems to us friendly or frightening, beautiful or ugly, pleasant or disagreeable, it affects the way we approach others and indeed influences everything we do. Members of the same family and our closest friends, placed in the same kinds of situations, react in very different ways. Our emotions are a response to our experience, and the death of a loved one can bring on a wide range of them.
Take your cues from the bereaved
What do you do if someone pushes you away when you’re trying to help? Do you honor their wishes when they say, “I want to be left alone”? It is important to honor their wishes and give them space for a while. But check in regularly.
First and foremost, take your cues from the bereaved. For example, if they are using humor, as many do to cope, you can laugh together. If they are sitting quietly then you can sit quietly alongside them.
Write a personal note
A store-bought sympathy card will express your condolences and concern, but there is no substitute for a personal note or letter. If you’re wondering what to say, consider sharing a favorite memory or anecdote about the person who died. Write about their special qualities and what it was you valued about them. Your words will be a gift of love your grieving friend or loved one will treasure.
Your presence at the funeral is important. As a ritual, the funeral provides an opportunity for you to express your love and concern. As you pay tribute to a life that is now passed, you have a chance to support grieving friends and family. At the funeral or memorial service, the touch of your hand, a sympathetic look or a hug often times communicates more than any words could say.
If at all possible, don’t just attend the funeral and then disappear. Try to remain available afterward as well. Your grieving loved one may need you more in the days or weeks that follow than at the time of the death. Even a quick visit or a phone call during the weeks after the funeral is usually appreciated.
Help with decisions
Your friend or loved one has a lot of decisions to make in the first week or so following the death. You can be a helpful sounding board and guide. But be careful not to “take over” to the point of excluding them from the process. Try to avoid judgments. Avoid telling the person how to react or how to handle their emotions or the situation. Simply let him or her know that you will support their decisions (providing they aren’t destructive ones) and that you will help in any way that is appropriate.
Consider staying close by for the 1st week or 2 to help them make the tougher decisions. Hear their fears and be the shoulder they can lean on. Remember, it may be hard for them to ask for help. They might be trying to appear strong and may not know exactly what they need to do because their emotional energy is depleted, especially in the 1st weeks or months after the loss.
Allow them to tell their story
Bereavement counselors who run support groups hear a variety of stories about loss and grief. Each experience is completely different, yet when the participants share their stories the connections they make with each other are immediately and profoundly comforting. Regardless of where we are in the process of loss, we no doubt have the ability to be supportive as we relate and recognize each other’s pain. This sense of connection and acceptance is vital to our spiritual and emotional healing—and most importantly, it doesn’t necessarily take professional training to be enormously helpful to one another.
In her book, “The Fruitful Darkness,” anthropologist and depth psychologist, Joan Halifax, reflects on our collective as well as personal stories when she writes, “Stories are our protectors, like our immune system, defending against attacks of debilitating alienation... They are the connective tissue between culture and nature, self and other, life and death, that sew the worlds together, and in telling, the soul quickens and comes alive.”
In his classic book, “Reaching Out,” Henri Nouwen writes that though our own story “can be hard to tell, full of disappointments and frustrations, deviations and stagnations... it is the only story we have and there will be no hope for the future when the past remains unconfessed, unreceived and misunderstood.”
The bereaved may need to tell their story over and over again in great detail. It may be hard to be patient as you hear the same exact details for the third or fourth time, but it is one of the more necessary and important ways to move through grief.
Suggest support groups
At some point your loved one may need the support of others who can relate to the depth of their pain. Let them know you are not suggesting a support group because you are tired of their grief. Instead, tell them that you would like them to expand their support network to include others who might be more available and who might understand better.
Online support groups
You might direct your friend to the internet as well. Some of the most popular areas of the Internet are the chat rooms that offer grief support where one can listen or read others’ stories and share as they choose. You can also remain anonymous. Another advantage is that the bereaved can seek help anytime they need it—even in the middle of the night when they would surely hesitate to reach out to you. Research some of these groups for your grieving friend or share the name of one that was helpful to you at a difficult time.
There are no magic words
When we care about someone it is difficult to see them in pain and even well-intentioned people can say the wrong thing. We might want to say, “I know just how you feel,” or “perhaps it was for the best.” No words can erase or effectively minimize the pain your friend or loved one is facing. This may frustrate you. However, your primary role is to simply “be there.” Try not to worry about what to say, just be a presence they can lean on when needed.
The following, written by Molly Fumia in “Safe Passage,” beautifully expresses the act of being present:
“’I’ll cry with you’, she whispered ‘until we run out of tears. Even if it’s forever. We’ll do it together.’
There it was ... a simple promise of connection. The loving alliance of grief and hope that blesses both our breaking apart and our coming together again.”
Some words or phrases will be extremely painful for a grieving loved one to hear. Clichés and trite comments diminish the loss by providing simple answers to an extremely difficult reality. Comments like: “Time heals all wounds,” “You still have so much to be thankful for” or “You must be relieved that she’s out of pain” are not helpful and can even make your friend’s grieving more difficult.
Put aside religious, spiritual or personal beliefs
You may need to put aside your personal belief system as you try to help the person cope. Perhaps your belief system includes a philosophy such as “everything happens for a reason” or “God has a plan” or “he’s in a better place”. Although these ideas and beliefs may be helpful to some or may be helpful at another time, this is not the time for philosophical or religious platitudes. Your thoughts along this line may even anger the person you’re trying to help. It is so important at a time like this to be caring and understanding of the traditions of both the deceased and the families involved. To honor the deceased, often the living must find ways to compromise. If you are unclear about how best to be supportive in a difficult family decision concerning religious or personal beliefs, it’s best to encourage seeking the counsel of an impartial clergy person, family mediator, or social worker. Often times the funeral director can be a calming, rational advisor in difficult situations.
If you are a member of the bereaved’s religious community you may see them in the congregation or want to talk to them at the coffee hour afterward. Again, please be sensitive to their state of mind. And try to avoid religious platitudes and scriptural references as a way to console them. Although these words can be a comfort to some people, platitudes and religious references aren’t usually helpful when the bereaved is asking hard questions like, “Why me?”, “Why him?”, “Why did God do this?”, etc. Don’t feel you have to give an answer to why this happened. For many, coming to peace with the “why” question is a large part of the grieving process. Your loved one has to work through the tough questions in their own time. Just support and encourage them as they work through those questions.
Perhaps your loved one is relieved or glad that the death has occurred. As hard as it may be for you to hear, move away from trying to diminish their pain. Again, it is best to just listen and offer your understanding without judgment.
Help them to understand and manage their emotions
Help the bereaved to understand that they are experiencing one of the most traumatic experiences a person can endure. They will feel vulnerable, exhausted and weak and it is imperative that you encourage them to focus on their own needs.
They will certainly feel distracted during the first few weeks. Their short term memory may be compromised. Many people report having difficulty with simple tasks. Losing their keys, forgetting where they are going while driving, and sluggish reaction time are all common. Remind them that they need to take special caution during this time and should probably avoid driving and any other activities where these distractions could cause injury.
In fact, another way to help is to offer to drive your grieving loved one when they need to go places and especially when you know they are facing challenging circumstances. They will have appointments to keep and may need to navigate unfamiliar territory, both physically and emotionally. Having a trusted friend who is willing to drive and stay by their side will help them feel less alone.
Say the deceased's name
Often those who want to be helpful will shy away from saying the name of the deceased—they don’t want to cause more pain. However, those who have lost someone usually want to speak of them and welcome hearing their loved one’s name mentioned in the context of funeral plans, stories from the past and in many other ways. They will usually enjoy hearing a positive anecdote or funny story about their loved one because it brings the lost one back into the world for a moment.
Use the name of the person who has died either in a personal note or when you talk to your loved one or friend. Hearing their name can be a comfort, and it confirms that you have not forgotten who they were and what they meant to them.
Reach out to them
While it may be upsetting to see your friend or loved one withdrawing from people and activities, it is normal for a while. They will rejoin the world as they are ready.
In the meantime, don’t expect them to reach out to you. Many well-intentioned people will say, “call me if there is anything I can do.” However, in the early stages of grief, they may be overwhelmed by the thought of picking up the phone or they may not want to bother you. They may feel so numb that they barely know what they need. Decide what you can do and then do it. You don’t necessarily need to wait for an invitation.
A physical reminder of your care, such as gently holding their hand, tucking a throw in around them or a warm hug (ask permission first) is usually welcomed by the bereaved and very therapeutic. And, of course, don’t hesitate to hold them when they ask to be held.
Be there for significant events and dates
Special events such as anniversaries emphasize the absence of the deceased. This pain is a normal extension of the grief process. After the “formal mourning period” (however long that may be) try to stay in touch with the bereaved. When the time feels right, invite them to your home to share a meal, especially if they live alone. Mealtimes can feel particularly lonely. In the future, consider inviting them to be with you on significant dates like the one year anniversary of the death, the deceased’s birthday, or wedding anniversary. Perhaps you can offer to organize a memorial gathering on the one year anniversary or on the deceased’s birthday.
Grief affects everyone differently. Some people become very active and busy, while others may become lethargic, slowed down and numb. Eating, resting and self-care are all difficult tasks when besieged by the taxing emotions of grief. Encourage the bereaved to pay attention to their body signals. If they are tired they need to take a nap, if they are hungry they need to eat—maybe they can’t eat much, but they certainly need to keep up their strength as grieving takes its toll on the body.
Your grieving loved one may be feeling pressured about what is “expected” and what they “should” do. Try to avoid using the word “should.” Ask them what they think they need to do, then encourage them to do it.
Keep a watchful eye
With the shock of what’s happened, your friend or family member may want to take too much of a calming medication or consume large amounts of alcohol. Try to help them resist these urges by telling them that this will not make their grief any easier and that medicating grief only postpones it. Of course there are extreme circumstances where medications are necessary, but in general, as difficult as it may be for you to witness, it is best for them to cry the tears they need to shed, feel the raw feelings, and to express them as needed. In the case where they are not eating or sleeping at all, they may need medical intervention of some kind.
Watch for unhealthy reactions to the death, such as physical signs of depression, extreme weight loss, or social isolation. If your friend seems to be having a particularly difficult time with the mourning process, talk to a grief expert or contact a grief support group to find out what you can do to help your grieving friend.
Re-entering the corporate world
If the bereaved is someone you work with understand that they may need some extra support and understanding for much longer than you think. Your co-worker may be distracted at times, or they may have a different list of priorities for a while. While corporate America allows some time for bereavement leave, active grieving can go on for many months.
If you are their next door neighbor or live in their community, or share the next office, you may experience the person as acting differently, i.e. staying home often, more quiet or more active. Don’t hesitate to approach them and encourage them to talk. But remember to be the listener. If you want to avoid spending too much time being a sounding board because you have work to do, be clear about how much time you have for listening (i.e. “I have about ten minutes—how about we get a cup of coffee?” Or, “I know you need to talk, lunch time would be a better time than right now.”)
On the other hand, they may not want to talk at all. Don’t take this personally. Sometimes the bereaved just need to think and do other things to keep their minds busy. They may need to take a break from the hard work of grief. Just let them know you’re available when they’re ready.
If they've lost a child
“Thirty years after her son’s death, my friend still smarts when she remembers all the people who pointed out how lucky she was to have 2 other children.” Author, Fran Dorf
When one gives birth to or adopts a child, the parents expect the child to outlive them. They build a future filled with dreams, fantasies and goals for their child. The task of the grieving parents and relatives, as impossible as it seems, is to rebuild a world without the child and that rebuilding can take a very long time. When we lose a child it can seem as though the light of the world has gone out. We feel crazy, we go through our days like robots or stone statues, we can’t imagine going on.
There aren’t too many words that will bring a grieving parent, grandparent or other relative much comfort during this time. Regardless of their age or the age of the child, there is no loss as devastating. A child’s death is so unthinkable that every emotion and thought becomes intensified and exaggerated, including the length of time it takes to grieve. Parental grief can go on for 10 or 20 years—or for a lifetime. However, those who live through and thrive despite this unimaginable ordeal without becoming bitter, turn out to be some of the stronger, most loving individuals on the planet.
What to say
The first time you see your friend after he or she has lost their child, the best thing to do is simply to offer a hug or touch and say, “I’m so sorry.” No other words are really suitable. Don’t say, “You can have another child.” Another child may bring joy to them again someday, but will never replace the one that died.
Your friend or loved one may experience strong guilt that they couldn’t protect or heal their child or grandchild. This strong guilt is normal. They may experience a sense of personal failure, that as parents they weren’t “good enough.” You may be able to help them at some point by challenging their negative beliefs about themselves. Remind them that negative self-talk and self-recrimination will only serve to make their pain more unbearable. Unless they have intentionally harmed their child, it is certainly okay to say what you admired about their parenting and that they couldn’t have done a better job.
At some point the parents may become painfully aware that nearly no one is mentioning their child’s name. They long to hear it. Even if they cry when they hear you say it, it is because they appreciate hearing you say it. Another thing you can do is share your memories of the child and listen as they share theirs.
When they're obsessively angry
Although anger is a normal part of the grieving process, it is often much more intense when one loses a child—anger at God, the hospital, the doctor—some of this anger may even spill out onto you, their good friend or loved one. If you find that they are obsessively angry, unable to function calmly after a while, then they must be encouraged to find a way to funnel their anger into a creative and more productive outlet, such as a scholarship program or charitable organization. You might offer your help to organize this.
Relationships at risk
“The death of a child… robs parents of what they love most, isolates partners from each other, and deafens them so that they cannot hear the cries of their other children,” says Barbara Rosof in her book, “The Worst Loss.” It is important to remind the bereaved that there are people in their immediate family and close circle who are feeling tremendous grief as well. The siblings of the child that has died must be given special attention and time to grieve. It is important that each parent recognize and seek ways to deal with this stress.
One of the most intense challenges to the equilibrium of the marital relationship is the loss of a child. Regaining equilibrium can take 2 to 3 years. Understanding and respecting the differences of each others’ grieving styles is extremely important. Also, keep in mind that men and women have a tendency to grieve in very different ways. Men are more likely than women to internalize their grief and change the subject when asked how they’re doing. However, don’t assume he doesn’t need or appreciate your compassion just because he isn’t showing his emotions outwardly.
Another complication and challenge to the equilibrium of the marriage may be a tendency to blame yourself or your mate. For instance, in losses where one parent was present when the death occurred by accident, the absent parent may place unfair blame. In this case, as with any strong or destructive emotion, you must seek professional help. Compassionate Friends is one organization that offers support groups that deal specifically with child loss. With over 500 chapters nationwide, there is bound to be a support group near you.
What is most important to remember is that your friend or loved one will need time and lots of it, to get back on their feet. You will need to be extremely patient with them as each day moves a little bit forward through their grief. They will take small steps, and the day will come when they’re ready to smile and laugh again. Allow them to go at their own pace. You can remind them at some point that it does not dishonor their child if they choose to be well and happy again some day.
Time doesn't heal all wounds
Everyone grieves differently and in their own time. There are no exact timetables, no rules as to how long. Your friend or loved one will experience long and challenging days of grief. You will no doubt experience them as changed in some way. Some will be fine for a while and then crash a day, a week, a year later as the reality of the loss hits them. They may feel there is no resolution to the pain. It is normal for them to feel life has lost focus or purpose for a while. At some point, their lives will go on, and they will reestablish their place in it.
We don’t really “get over” the deepest losses in our lives, we learn to live with them and incorporate them into our lives as part of our histories. With your kindness, compassion, understanding and caring action, your friend or family member will eventually reinvest in new life when they are ready. It may be a public reinvestment (i.e. establishing a foundation or scholarship program) or it may be a private reinvestment (i.e. a change in goals or interests, a shift in priorities).
If at all possible, try to commit to about 13 months of support. After the initial loss there is the 1st anniversary of the loss, which is an especially emotional time. Your friend will appreciate a call or a handwritten note with your thoughts on the anniversary of the loss, or a wedding anniversary or birthday, or anytime during the year following the death. If you don’t know what to say, a simple “I’m thinking of you” card will help.
Give your friend or loved one permission to express his or her feelings without fear of criticism. Avoid saying, “I know just how you feel,” because you don’t. They need to experience all the hurt, sorrow and pain that is coming up. Recognize that tears and anger are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with the death.
Try not to have expectations that the bereaved will grieve like you or some others you have known. Some may sigh, moan or scream—some may be angry for much longer than you think they should be. The emotional roller coaster will at times be difficult to experience, but your support will be one of the greatest gifts one human being can offer to another.
As a general rule, before approaching someone who is grieving, remember a time when you were consumed with your own sadness. What helped you and what didn’t you want to hear? What do you wish had been done for you? Do that for your friend, and you will have done enough.
If after reading this article you still have concerns and questions about how to be most helpful when someone is grieving, there are a number of books that will be especially helpful. Here is a short list:
- Blair, Pamela D. and Noel, Brook, "I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One," Updated Edition, Sourcebooks, Inc., 2008
- Cerza, June, "How Can I Help?: How to Support Someone Who Is Grieving," Kolf Fisher Books, 1999
- Frigo, Victoria, "You Can Help Someone Who’s Grieving: A How-To Healing Handbook," AuthorHouse, 2000
- GriefNet (Internet Resource)—this is an Internet community consisting of almost 50 email support groups and 2 websites: www.griefnet.org
- Haverkampf, Jamieson, "Mom Minus Dad: The Essential Resource Guide for Busy Adults with a Newly Widowed Parent," Blooming Women Press, Atlanta, GA, 2008
- Shaw, Eva, "What to Do When a Loved One Dies: A Practical and Compassionate Guide to Dealing with Death on Life’s Terms," Writeriffic Publishing Group, 2005
About the author
Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, spiritual counselor and life coach with a private practice in Hawthorne, New York. Dr. Blair has appeared several times as an expert on CBS TV, is author of "The Next Fifty Years" and is co-author of the bestselling award-winning classic on grief entitled "I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye" (Sourcebooks, Inc.) as well as "Living with Grief: A Guide for Your First Year of Grieving" and "You’re Not Alone: Resources to Help You Through Your Grief Journey."