How to Help When A Friend is Grieving
Helping someone who is grieving can be awkward; we want to help, but often don't know how.
Sometimes we find ourselves wanting to help someone we don't really know--someone who isn't
particularly a friend. We want to reach out, but we feel uncomfortable, awkward, and ill equipped
to say the right thing. But the "right" thing is simply caring. These guidelines may help you to do
- Talk with the person. Speak to her or him, or to someone close and find
out when you can spend a little time with them. Ask how you might help. Even if it feels like it
has been too long, it is never too late to show that you care.
- When in doubt, say less than more. A hug, a pat on the shoulder, a few
words of caring are often all that is needed. The person grieving needs to know that others care,
and that their feelings are natural and normal.
- Don't try to comfort with easy answers. Make no attempt to minimize the
loss. Don't suggest that the death or other loss was the best thing ("(S)he's/you're better off") or
give religious answers unless you know that the person shares the faith, which is presupposed by
that comment. Saying, "I'm sorry" often confuses, because it suggests some sort of responsibility
or involvement on your part, and is seen too often as a pat answer. Try, instead, "I care."
- Be yourself. The best way to show your concern is in your own way with
your own words.
- Stay available. Keep the connection alive, either in person or by
- Help with practical matters. See if you can run errands, clean house,
bring a meal, get notes and assignments from class, or whatever.
- Encourage offers to visit or help. Help others past the awkwardness.
If appropriate, help make a schedule so there isn't a "feast or famine" of visitors.
- Accept silence. Don't force the conversation or engage in pointless
chatter. Let the person who is grieving set the level of talking.
- Be a good listener. Good listening is accepting whatever thoughts or
feelings are expressed. Do not reproach them for either their emotions or their comments. Be as
understanding as you can.
- Do not tell the person how he or she feels, or how they should feel. It is
entirely appropriate to ask, but most of us resent being told how we should feel. "I know how you
feel" or "I know you must be angry" are groundless, and "You need to release your emotions" is
demanding and humiliating. Human beings need to release their emotions when they need to, not on
- Do not interrogate the person. They will give you details if they want to.
If they do, listen with understanding.
- Avoid talking about inconsequential things in the presence of the person who has
suffered the loss. This is usually done to distract the sufferer, but can easily be taken
as not really caring.
- Allow the person who is grieving to work through the mourning. Do not
minimize. Do not criticize what seems to you to be moody or morbid behavior. Do not suggest
specific time-lines for being "one's old self." All of us are changed by loss. Learn from the
mourner; do not instruct.
- If you write, write a letter. A commercial card has much less personal
impact. Your own thoughts in your own handwriting can become a talisman for the mourner.
- Encourage the postponement of major decisions until after the period of intense
grief. Whatever can wait should wait.
- When it feels right, draw the mourner into outside activity. Start with
quiet, gentle activities. Keep in mind that the person may not have the energy or initiative to
begin outside ventures on his or her own.
- When the mourner returns to social activities, treat him or her as a normal
person. Mourning is a normal human activity. Don't imply pity; instead support self-respect.
Accept the appropriateness of the person's feelings and actions. Acknowledge the loss and the
change in their situation, but don't dwell on it.
- Be aware of needed progress through grief. Grieving takes time--and the
length depends upon the individual. If the person seems truly stuck, gently suggest they seek help
or find assistance.