How to help someone through grief : practical tips and what to avoid
Death is the only certainty all of us have, but when it happens, finding the rights words to say or the right things to do can be a challenge. Don’t let your fear stop you from reaching out. Grief is hard for everyone but if you keep these two things in mind, chances are your efforts will be remembered:
It’s not about you.
Just show up.
For more than a decade, I have been interviewing families who lost loved ones. The sad irony about grief is that most of the time, these individuals are surrounded by friends and who want to help but don’t know how. They think about calling but don’t because they believe that giving breathing space is more helpful; they want to come over but the thought ‘what if it’s a hard day?’ stops them halfway. This creates frustration and pain on both sides.
If you are in this position or just want to be ready when it happens - yes, it will happen - here are some ideas of how to show you care:
Instead of saying ‘call me if you need anything,’ take the initiative. Grief hits you like a tornado, leaving a messy, broken world behind. Don’t expect the griever to have the energy to call or let you know about their needs. This is precisely the moment when you should take the initiative.
The thing about showing up is to stick to what you do best. This is something I have learned recently. I don’t know about you, but every time I have a friend in need, the first thing that comes to mind is to bring them a meal. Nothing wrong with that, it’s a great gesture, but I don’t enjoy cooking, never did, never will. Moreover, this is what most people do. There is a chance that your friend will have tons of food at home already, so find a service you can provide.
One way to decide on how to help is to think of all the things that can become overwhelming in their daily lives. Most of the time, these are simple chores that need to be done. Here are some examples:
- Laundry: clothes will certainly be piling up, especially if they have kids. Offer to do it. You can even text them to leave the bag by the door so that they don’t have to say hello. Believe me, this can make a huge difference.
- Mail: sort it out for them. Write down bills that need to be paid, the due dates and value; separate the sympathy cards they might be receiving. Help make a list of those that need to be replied, get the cards yourself, and just have your friend sign them. Mail the cards.
- Food: if you are not like me and that’s your thing, by all means, bring them food. It doesn’t even have to be cooked by you, just make sure you know what they like and be aware of any restrictions or allergies.
- Clean their home.
- Mow their lawn.
- Take care of their pets, particularly dogs because they need to be taken out for walks.
- Be the one to update your friends: having to call people so that they know how you are doing or to inform them about the wake, etc. can be daunting. Make a list of people you can contact and do it yourself so that some of the burdens can be relieved.
- If you are close enough, come to their home, take calls and receive guests during the first few days.
- Drive them where they need to go.
- Organize your community to help together: if you are good at getting things organized, go for it! When my friend Pepe told me about his cancer surgery, I realized that the following day I would be traveling abroad, so I contacted our closest friends and asked what each of them could do to be present for him. We created a spreadsheet online and each person added the days they would visit, which food they would bring, who would walk his dog, etc. I couldn’t be there for him, but I made sure everybody else would.
- If faith and religion are relevant to them, create a prayer group. Having them participate is their choice. A middle term would be to have them be present by a video or voice call.
If none of these hit a cord, find an area in which you can support them. Are you a lawyer? Then help them with legal matters; A teacher? Assist the kids with homework; Gardener? How about adding some beautiful flowers to their yard? Just do your thing, no matter what it is. The point is to be there.
Parents get particularly overwhelmed after a loss, but life goes on, and so do the endless chores that need to get done for the kids. Showing up for them is meaningful for both the parents and the children, who will learn the value of friendship and community in tough times.
- Take them to activities: Although it is important for the family to go through bereavement together, parents can benefit from having time to be alone, organize the home, and rest. Let them know which days you are available so they can plan accordingly.
- Entertain them: Take the kids for a day out or establish a day of the week to have them over.
- Assist with homework.
- Give them rides to parties, to school events, and friends’ homes. Wherever they need to go.Be ready to talk to them, bring up the subject: it’s common for kids to feel that they shouldn’t talk about their loss because it causes pain to their parents. Sometimes, they even feel guilty about the death but don’t know how to express it, so let them know that they can come to you.
Being a source of comfort is not always about what you do. Knowing what to avoid can be equally important. Here is a list to keep in mind:
- Avoid talking about it on social media: grief is a private matter, so if you feel the need to discuss it with someone, call a friend. Let the family be in charge of online posts, particularly photos of them and the deceased.
- Don’t feel that you have to be the one to be positive about their pain: if they are having a hard day, just listen.
- No, you don’t know how they are feeling: sometimes we believe that because we have lost loved ones, the experiences can be compared. They can’t and when you switch the story to yours by saying “when I lost…” you make it about you. Unless they ask specific questions regarding how you dealt with your loss, just listen to what they have to say.
- Avoid imposing your faith: unless you know that religion and spirituality are important to them, don’t push your own beliefs on the bereaved.
- Don’t minimize it: even with the best intentions at heart, saying things like “it could be worse,” “at least you have your family,” or “you have a lot to be thankful for” can upset and make them feel that they are alone or that you are not ready to listen to them.
If the person mentions the deceased, don’t change the subject: silence is grief’s most constant companion. No matter how uncomfortable it may be for you, remember that it is much worse for them, so if there is a need to talk about the one who left, please listen. Few people do. The flip side of this is equally important. Be able to sit in with them in silence. Let them lead the way.
- Don’t say “you should”: instead, use less judgmental statements like “have you thought about…?” “maybe it would be helpful” and “you could try this…”
Finally, understand that grief follows no set path. It will look different on each of us, and that is totally fine. Respect their pace, their reactions, their pain.
Again, it is not about you.
Just show up.