How to Support a Grieving Family Member or Friend: 6 Principles

It’s common to feel anxious and intimidated in the “grief support” role. This is one of the reasons why otherwise caring people sometimes say hurtful, minimizing, or unhelpful things to their bereaved loved ones and why they sometimes avoid their grieving friends and family members altogether.  Hopefully, if nothing else, all of you reading this after Googling “how to support a grieving friend” will take solace knowing your fear is normal and (likely) not indicative of a personal problem.

Last month several of the people I love experienced the death of someone they love.  I sent flowers, I wrote cards, and said “I’ll be here if you need anything” but overall I felt useless, ineffective, and unhelpful. I knew these friends and family members were entering the darkness of grief and that all I could really offer them was timid encouragement and the offer of support.

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I started thinking about this reality (and drawing very bad stick figure cartoons about it) and ultimately decided to turn to our readers to ask for their perspective.  I posted a question on Facebook and Instagram asking our readers what the best thing any person or people did for them in them in the days, weeks, months, and years after their loss.  I expected to get a handful of responses, but instead we received close to 150.

Reading all these responses was an incredibly moving experience and it helped me to realize a few important things.

  1. There are a lot of awesomely supportive family and friends out there.
  2. The things people find helpful are very specific to who they are as people and to their unique circumstances.
  3. Having a good support system is never about any one person saying or doing the exact right thing.  Rather it’s about having a network of support people who come together to help in big and small ways. And it’s the small gestures that are often most appreciated!

I’m sad we can’t share all the responses we received, but if you want to read the individual comments you can go here.  Instead we’d like to share a few themes, or principles, that emerged as most helpful and supportive to grieving individuals.

1.  Send something

In the past we’ve given flowers a bit of a bad rap because, while lovely to have at the services, (1) it’s difficult to know what to do with them afterwards and (2) flowers die and when they do they smell terrible.  The truth is, though, I often send flowers when I feel that it’s appropriate.  If you think the person would appreciate flowers, or if you think that you will be one of the only people who send them, then send them.

Now if you get the sense that many people will send flowers, you may want to think outside of the box.  Some suggestions that people noted as especially helpful include sending/dropping off:

  • Home cooked meals
  • Remembrance items
  • Food and home staples
  • Thoughtful cards and letters
  • Gift cards to somewhere practical or self-care related
  • Items that belonged to the person
  • Care box with self-care items

2. Offer practical support

People often need practical support after the death of a loved one for two reasons (1) because their deceased loved one used to handle certain things and fill certain roles and (2) because grief makes it hard to care about the minutia of day-to-day life.  Ask yourself, what might my loved one need help with and what unique skills do I have to offer?  If you find that you aren’t the best person to help fill a potential need, you might also consider purchasing a gift certificate so your loved one can hire someone at their own convenience (i.e. a cleaning service or a landscaper).

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A few examples of helpful practical support that were shared include…

When a friend or family member…

  • Leant a hand with little day-to-day tasks
  • Helped with children or pets
  • Helped the bereaved sort through a loved one’s belonging or helped to clean out a house
  • Helped with yard work
  • Cleaned the house
  • Helped with odd jobs around the house
  • Taught the person how to handle new tasks and responsibilities (i.e. finances, lawn care, childcare, etc)
  • Sent meals
  • Gave them a place to stay when they didn’t want to stay alone in their home
  • Accompanied them on certain outings

3. Be there

Many people expressed that friends and family “being there”, physically and/or emotionally, was one of the most helpful gifts a person could have given them after their loved one died. To clarify, “being there” goes beyond a vague and non-comital – “let me know if you need anything”.  Let’s be honest, this is often the last phrase someone utters before going MIA on their grieving family member or friend. Not helpful.

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Examples of how to “be there” in a real way vary, but include some of the following:

When a supportive friend or family member…

  • Physically showed up during the bereaved’s time of need
  • Continued to check in on a regular basis via text message or phone
  • Regularly offered a simple “I love you” or “I’m thinking of you”
  • Shared meals with the bereaved when they knew they were struggling to eat alone
  • Called just to talk
  • Offered a real hug
  • Offered a hanky
  • Offered sincere and simple words of support and encouragement

4. Help them take a break

One of my favorite grief theories, the Dual Process Model, says that a griever will oscillate between confronting their loss and avoiding the loss. Under this model, seeking respite from grief is a healthy part of coping.  This makes sense, right?  Sometimes a person needs a little time to feel normal or to engage in activities that give them a boost of positive emotion.  This being the case, it may be helpful to offer or encourage distraction; with the caveat that you should never push a person to minimize, move on, or forget their loss and with the understanding that their grief could overcome them at any moment (especially in the early days) and thats okay.

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Some of the things that people noted as providing positive distraction include….

  • Laughter
  • Sharing positive memories of their loved one
  • Taking them out for a meal
  • Taking them to the movies or on other recreational outings
  • Accompanying them to parties or other social gatherings

5. Be willing to “go there” with them

Something people often express their appreciation for is having friends and family who are willing to be present for the sad and uncomfortable moments without trying to fix them and without showing fear, discomfort, or judgment.

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Being willing to “go there” with a bereaved individual can mean many things.  A few noted examples include…

When friends or family members were willing to…

  • Be present for the tears, anger, and outbursts without judgment
  • Sit in silence
  • Talk about the person who died – say their name, share memories, bring them up
  • Just let the bereaved person cry
  • Offer validation and/or normalize the experience
  • Truly listen (without trying to offer advice)
  • Accept the person’s grief months and even years later

6. Don’t forget

Part of being a supportive family member or friend is understanding that grief is, in many ways, a forever thing.  Your loved one doesn’t just need your support in the immediate aftermath of loss, but also in the years to come.  Days like anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, weddings, and graduations may forever land somewhere on the spectrum of sad to bittersweet.

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You can show your ongoing support for a grieving loved one by doing the following…

  • Sending a card or checking in on the days you think may be difficult
  • Recognizing that the certain times of year, like the time of year when their loved one died, may be difficult
  • Continuing to share memories and to talk about their loved one
  • Continuing to randomly (or regularly) check in with the person
  • Acknowledging that happy days may be somewhat bittersweet
  • Acknowledging that the person who died is always with them

Have we missed something?  Share your feedback below in the comments section.  


COMMENTS

Laird

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 9:20 am

Outstanding piece!

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Mary Weis

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 10:27 am

I loved this article! We feel so supported and blessed because of all the beautiful support we received–including flowers! The people who reached out us made us feel so cared about. Words can’t really express their presence in my life.

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Jan O'Brien

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 9:41 pm

Very good. I want people to acknowledge the “hole” in my life. I don’t want to be told to remember the “good times” and that she’s in a better place. I know that and I do remember the good times, but I’m here and she’s not.

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Linda A Miller

Posted on November 25, 2016 at 9:50 pm

Wow, do I ever understand what you mean a “hole” left in your life. I keep telling people,” I just miss him so much.” My brother was taken from me to soon. Thank you for expressing that.

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Sienna

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 10:16 pm

Lovely & important work, thank you for sharing this.

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Leah

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 10:45 pm

We just talked about this in a grief group tonight. Even when you have gone through it, it’s hard to know what to say or do.

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Trish

Posted on November 8, 2016 at 7:47 am

“Being there” really is so important. After my husband died (I was 32 with 2 very small boys), my sister moved in – even into my bed to help me with the middle of the night feedings/changings with a newborn, to help drive, sort mail, write thank you notes, etc. She was an angel. Dear friends came over, ate with me, went to the store with me, laughed and cried with me. My husband’s friends came over one Saturday and did yardwork and little things around the house. I also remember when my mom’s best friend’s teenage son suddenly died, my mom just went to her friend’s house to just “be there” with her. She brought her mail and listened to the radio and made her lunch so her friend was not alone. Attending a support group is, I believe, key to healing. Grieving with peer support on a consistent basis is cathartic and I have witnessed people emerging from their cave of grief. In the end, grief sucks. It just does. But when you have some tools to help navigate this journey, it certainly makes it a bit easier.

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Nail Polish Society

Posted on November 8, 2016 at 11:48 pm

Thank you for this! I’ve always felt that this was a huge weakness of mine, not knowing how to help, so I often do nothing. I’m saving this and will refer to it often!

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Patricia

Posted on November 17, 2016 at 6:42 pm

Well done and needed for so many.
Just lost my husband of 46 years less then 3 months ago. Many people at the service offered their help – anything I needed. There were at least a dozen people who said they would be in touch soon and come to help. In 3 months 2 cousins have come to my home. One cousin took me out for a drive to a beautiful fall location, stopped for lunch and then browsed through a shop she knew I loved and it was the first time anyone had said, do you want to go out somewhere just to give you a change and some fresh air. She cleared everything with me first which is so important as what may seem like such a good idea to the person trying to help, it may be too much for the grieving person. The other cousin came and just sat and talked about so many things that Jim and myself did together. How many friends he had and that everyone loved him. There were some tears but there was also some smiles. She stayed for the whole day and promised she would be back the following week and perhaps we could go out if I was up to it. I was able to get some sleep for the first time without crying myself to sleep. Such a simple thing brought me such a time of comfort.

This article had so many things that I have thought before. Where did everywhere go? I did not realize how many people did back off either because they were uncomfortable or did not know when or what was appropriate.

I think a small booklet giving the thoughts and ideas that was explained so well here, would be a wonderful addition in an appropriate place where the service is held. So many that could be thinking the same questions could find it so very helpful.

. My very best friend since we were in high school came to the funeral and then she just disappeared. That hurt me so much. I finally, thinking something must be wrong on her end, decided to phone her just to be certain all was ok and when I did it was so strange as she never even asked how I was doing nor gave me an explanation as to why I had not heard from her. We are close as sisters but it was so evident how uncomfortable my phone call had made her feel.

This is such a very,very important list of ideas and feelings that it needs to be spread to as many as possible.

I have many days that I cry all day long being alone most all the time. Part of me died with him and I am certain the hole in my heart can never be filled.

My brother flew in from Colorado and stayed for two weeks and my two daughters were such a gift as they took over everything from notifying people, to accompanying me to the funeral home to plan everything, from preparing a beautiful slide presentation in two parts of the home that played quietly in the background with their father’s life from his growing years to our wedding, graduations of his daughters, their weddings, and each grandchild (all six of them) in many stages. They were the most important part of our lives now and gifts from God.

I was so grateful for all that was done to make the worst days of my life bearable and even my grandchildren took part.

In closing though, Come the time that they each had to return to their lives,that the loneliness and the fact that he was gone forever hit me full force. This is the time I feel that the friends and family members are most needed. I still wake in the morning and for a brief moment think I hear his voice in the other room and the tears begin again.

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Jill Malcolm

Posted on December 6, 2016 at 7:51 pm

Incredibly helpful article! When my Dad died flowers and cards meant so much. It showed people cared. Prayers are so sweet too. One of my friends from South America knew I was having a hard day as my Dad’s birthday was approaching. She said in her culture the family would gather and make that person’s favorite meal and celebrate their life. I liked that and I do it every year now. And going on long walks and talking helps too. Thank you!

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