Grief is something everyone experiences at some point in their lives. Whether it’s losing a job, a way of life or a beloved family member or friend, coping with loss can be incredibly difficult, and it takes time. If you have a friend or loved one who is going through the grief process, there are some things you can do to help lighten their load. Check out these eight tips from the experts on how you can support someone who’s grieving.
Christi Garner, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says the No. 1 action you can take to support a friend or family member who has lost someone is to “put on your listening ears.” That means active listening that puts your loved one first, she says.
“Stay away from voicing your opinions and judgments,” says Garner. She advises being there to listen to everything from “a story, to complaints and to anything the person in grief has to say. That is sometimes how we work things out. We talk about the thoughts in our heads until they can become more clear.”
Sometimes, all you need to do is be present as a sounding board while the person talks through their grief.
2. Make the Moment About Them
Lisa Barone lost her father suddenly in 2014 and her mother in 2017 to colon cancer. She echoes the importance of active listening and adds that listeners should let the moment be about the person who is grieving a recent loss. “You might have lost your parent three years ago,” says Barone,” but let this moment be about them. Don’t compare, don’t tell them how they should be grieving.”
It helps to remember that everyone approaches grief in their own way, and people who are struggling aren’t always looking for advice. They don’t need you to step in and make everything better — they know that’s not possible. Instead, support them where they are now.
3. Take Action With Little Things
Barone notes that many people ask if they can help. “Let me know what I can do” or “Call me if you need anything” are common phrases when someone is dealing with loss. But Barone says this puts the burden on the griever to reach out.
“Instead, do something,” she says. “Whether it’s dropping off dinner, stopping by the house with necessities like milk or toilet paper. . . refilling prescriptions or just walking the dog. Do something to let them know you’re there and lighten their load.”
4. Keep Offering Support Over Time
Mary Potter Kenyon, certified grief counselor and the author of “Refined by Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace,” agrees that taking action is key and that the need for these types of actions can last for months.
“Keep in mind that three or four weeks from the loss, everyone else has gone on with their lives while the griever might feel abandoned,” says Kenyon. She advises sending a card three or four weeks after the initial loss and then again four months later.
Kenyon also suggests making a note of dates that may be difficult, such as birthdays, Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversaries, holidays and the anniversary of the loved one’s death, and to reach out when possible during those times.
“Six years later, it was easier for me, but I still wanted someone else to remember that I lost my husband on March 27,” ,says Kenyon, speaking out her own loss, ”
5. Spend Time Making New Memories
While listening and letting the moment be about the grieving person is important in the early days and weeks after a loss, friends and family can continue being there for the person in question by spending quality time with them, says Arlene B. Englander, a licensed psychotherapist and author.
“Ask about spending time together — again with an emphasis on listening, but as time goes on (weeks or months depending on the nature of the loss) eventually try introducing more pleasant topics from your own life to help them start thinking about moving forward,” Englander says.
Spend time doing things that help your loved one remember and honor the person they lost, but encourage them to consider new hobbies or adventures too. Coupling Englander’s advice with Kenyon’s, make it a point to find time for this person on difficult days. Let them set the tone for that time, at least in the beginning. Don’t assume they want to keep their mind off of their loss, but also don’t assume that they want to dwell on it.
6. Don’t Assume Losing a Senior Loved One is “Easier”
Holly Wolf lost four senior loved ones in 2017 and says she heard a variety of responses which were meant by the speakers to be comforting. Unfortunately, not all were.
“’But she or he was ill, old, sick or ready to die’. . . avoid saying that,” Wolf says. “’I’m sure the loss is difficult or painful’ is so much better.”
Wolf also adds that “grief fatigue” felt by the grieving person’s support system can be a problem when someone loses multiple people in a short amount of time. After losing her aunt and uncle within the same 30 days, followed by her in-laws within a seven-week period, she recalls how people responded to the first death but not always to the second.
“Each death is a separate event,” Wolf says. “The loss isn’t less because it’s close to another one. Treat each loss as an individual one regardless of how close it is to another.”
7. Avoid Platitudes
Alison Johnston, CEO of Ever Loved, an online funeral planning and memorial website platform, offers some additional advice about what not to say when someone is grieving. She notes that common platitudes such as “He’s in a better place” or “It was God’s will” can do more harm than good.
“Even if you believe this to be true,” says Johnston, “to the person grieving, this can often come across as you telling them that it’s a good thing that someone died.”
8. Take a Golden Rule Approach
The overall expert consensus on helping someone going through the grieving process? Offer availability and kindness but avoid forcing your views, opinions and perceptions on grief when someone else is going through it. By being present and helping your loved one celebrate the life they lost while moving forward with their own, you can provide the kind of much-needed support that helps them heal.