Helping someone through grief

Helping someone through grief: 11 things to do when you have no clue what to do

Helping someone through grief is a tricky path to navigate. Writer Anya Meyerowitz shares what she's learned from her personal experience

Helping someone through grief is not something we get taught at school. Yet it’s a life skill we will all need at some point. ‘I feel like people avoid me or talk to me formally as if we’re meeting at a work event for the first time,’ a close friend of mine said to me after his father died.

A month ago I lost my uncle and suddenly I knew what he meant. Death is a sad, but normal, fact of life and no one will get through life without losing a loved one. Yet when it comes to supporting friends or family through the loss of a loved one, it can all feel a little awkward.

When someone goes through a breakup we instinctively know we should bring chocolate and wine. When they lose their job, we’re sure that reminding them of all the positives in their life will do the trick. But when someone’s grieving we suddenly have no idea what to do or say, no matter how good our intentions.

Here are 11 things that I learned about helping someone through grief (without resorting to cliches).

1. Ask them what they need

It’s easy to feel under pressure to know exactly how to support a grieving friend – after all, you’re supposed to know them better than anyone, right? But instead of assuming what you think they need help, ask them. There are so many obligations after someone dies: sorting out the funeral, legal responsibilities and seeing long lost family members, so being asked what they need can be a much needed break.

2. Check in

After my uncle’s funeral I was inundated with promises of coffee and catch-ups. But life moves on. People have jobs, relationships or families to look after and many assume that supporting someone through grief means setting aside their own schedule. It doesn’t – just remember to check in. Follow up on coffee dates and nights in (or nights out) – you don’t need to see someone every evening, just a few hours break is sometimes enough. Grieving is draining so your friend won’t have the energy for consistent socialising but a black Americano on a Sunday afternoon with a friend was truly the highlight of my week.

3. Don’t keep praising their strength

This is a weird one because it seems like the right thing to do and everyone likes to be praised. But sometimes being continually told how strong you’re being makes it feel like you can’t break down, even when you want to. You feel you don’t want to let those people who are so impressed by your brave outlook down. Even if someone does feel strong, they will also feel very vulnerable and it’s a relief to be able to show that side to others.

4. Accept each stage

Psychologists talk about the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. You don’t know how long each stage will last but each is necessary – feeling angry is not an indication that someone isn’t coping nor is feeling depressed a sign that you need to remind them of all the positives in their life. Helping someone through grief means adapting to each stage alongside them – validate their feelings during each stage and even read up on the process to better equip yourself. Or, just ask them what it feels like.

5. Resist the urge to ‘save’ someone

You can’t prevent someone from feeling grief and nor is it your job to. Often we feel we should have all the solutions but this can end up feeling claustrophobic for the person grieving. Instead validate your friend’s emotions by just letting them talk. It’s okay to listen without an answer and it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’. During my own grief it was nice to know other people didn’t have all the answers either – it made me feel human.

6. Find your own way to pay tribute to someone

Funerals are the most common way we pay our respects but sometimes doing something more personal – just the two of you – can add to the sense of closure. I was touched when a friend wanted to plant a tree with me – in homage to my uncle’s love of nature. Activities like this are great because they are focused on bereavement but simultaneously on living.

7. Don’t shy away from ‘taboo’ language

We often find ourselves saying ‘passed away’ when someone has died – as if the word ‘dead’ will make or break someone’s grief. But tiptoeing around language can promote the idea that we feel awkward or uncomfortable and in turn, make it difficult for the bereaved to be open about their real feelings.

8. Remember you don’t have to carry the conversation

Not every silence needs to be filled and not every answer needs to be elaborated on. It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know what to say.’ I had no clue what to say at my uncle’s funeral but the people who were honest and genuine with their condolences made me feel less anxious about having nothing to say in return. Helping someone through grief is always difficult but so is responding to people offering their condolences – it’s a two way street. I don’t remember what people said anyway, I just know who I felt comfortable being around on the day.

9. Be specific

No one wants to be a burden – even when they’re grieving – and so saying ‘let me know if you want company’ can feel like an inaccessible offer sometimes. Instead ask ‘would you like to go for coffee today?’, ‘are there any phone calls you need me to make?’ or ‘would it be helpful if I stayed with you tonight?’. These are much easier invitations to accept.

10. Resist making grand sweeping statements

Sometimes it feels like the kindest thing to say: ‘he lived such a full life’ or ‘she would want you to be happy’ but the truth is, often we don’t really know. And it can get tiring to keep hearing the same old cliches – if you have a specific anecdote, share it, otherwise steer clear of generalised statements. They don’t really mean anything.

11. It’s okay to still talk about your own life

If something is going on in your life, don’t be afraid to bring it up. It can be a welcome relief for those grieving not to talk about themselves, or death, and they’ll want to feel normal. Sometimes you just want someone to call you and say ‘you’ll never guess what?’

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