How to Support Someone Who is Grieving

Grieving word cloud

In my last post, I talked about the “how” of listening and gave you a set of seven guidelines to become a better listener. Now I want to point to a special case of listening. How do you support someone who is grieving? What do you say or do when someone is going through grief or sorrow?

These are awkward moments for lots of people. We naturally want to support or even help ease the pain of someone going through grief and so we tend to say and do things that are not helpful. In this article I want to briefly talk about what to do and say in this circumstance.

Helpful Tips

There are a number of things you can do or say when someone is going through grief. Here are a few ideas for what you can do:

  • Don’t let your own fears and emotional discomfort prevent you from reaching out. Someone going through grief needs others to be there for them, to know that they are not alone.
  • Allow people to go through the grieving process in their own way. There is not a right way or wrong way to grieve. Even the timetable will be different for everyone. It is important to support people in the process they are going through without imposing your expectations.
  • Offer practical and ongoing ways to support them. Think about practical ways of giving help–cleaning the house, covering for a project, bringing a meal or watching the kids. It is much easier for a grieving person to accept help when your offer is tangible, sensitivity to their needs.
  • Know how to be there and listen. Perhaps the best gift you can give someone is your presence and an open heart and willingness to listen and let them talk.

Allow Their Pain

The most important thing to realize about being with someone who is going through grief is that you don’t have to take away their pain. (In fact, we’re often soothing our own awkwardness or discomfort by saying and doing things we think will lessen their pain.)

Here’s a guideline. Your purpose should be to be present to their pain rather than try to take it away. Be present in a nonjudgmental way. Be present in a way that allows them emotional space to feel whatever they feel.

What Not to Say

There are lots of things we say, with perfectly good intent, that are not helpful. For example, it doesn’t help to say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t know how they feel even if you’ve gone through a similar experience. Everyone’s experience is unique.

It doesn’t help to try to soothe with comments like, “He or she is in a better place.” “There’s a purpose for everything.” “I guess she was needed more on the other side.” “You’ll get through this.”

Such statements may be how you are making yourself feel better but do not grant the emotional space for the grieving person to go through their grieving process. A rule of thumb is to avoid saying anything which implies what or how another should feel.

And especially avoid using the words, “At least.…” “At least he is no longer suffering.” “At least you still have your other kids to love.” “At least you don’t have to worry financially.” “It must have been his time to go.” Although intended to comfort and reassure, these responses invalidate or minimize what someone is actually going through. They are not ways to support someone who is grieving.

Better Responses

Better responses sound like:

“I am so sorry for your loss.”

“Losing a loved one is hard.”

“I wish I had the right words.”

“I know how much you loved her.”

“My favorite memory of your loved one is….”

“You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

“I’ll miss him/her.”

These responses acknowledge the loss and pain but without sending a message about how someone should be coping or feeling.

Because we feel uncomfortable, we want to do or say something to help. Sometimes it’s okay to just be with someone without saying much. Being quiet creates space for them to say what, if anything, they need or want to say.

So, I’m inviting you to pay more attention to how you support someone who is grieving. Put aside your own distress and be with such a person with a loving heart, trusting them to experience and work through their grief in a way that works for them.


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