The death of a loved one is an almost universal event, and one of life’s most painful ordeals, but it’s not always obvious how to help someone experiencing grief through bereavement. Some people feel uncomfortable around the subject of death, and don’t know what to say or how to approach the subject. Don’t let your own personal discomfort stop you from reaching out to help someone. Now is the time for you to step up and support them.

How to help someone through bereavement

Here’s what you should do to help someone through bereavement:

  1. Express your sympathy for their loss.
  2. Listen to them. This helps the bereaved person deal with emotions.
  3. Offer your support, for example you could offer to cook them a meal, or clean their house.
  4. Ask the person how they feel and don’t make assumptions; grief affects people in different ways.

Choose your words wisely

Focus your words around open questions, without judgement. Throw out your expectations of grief. Clichés like, ‘my condolences’, or ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ don’t convey any feeling or real emotion, even though these might seem most appropriate. Ask how they are. Don’t suppose you already know how they feel; grief can cause a range of turbulent emotions – anger, guilt, sadness, regret – but some days can also be joyful, as they remember happy memories.

Listen more than you talk

When it comes to coping with grief, your presence is more important than what you say. Many people get hung up on what words to use, but it’s not nearly as important as being there and listening.  Just after the funeral, your friend will feel emotionally drained, so don’t pressure them to open up. Sitting in silence is fine. If they do begin to talk about how they feel, or the person who died, don’t interrupt them or change the topic. Let your friend remember the person in their own words. Don’t second guess what they’re trying to say, just let them talk.

Don’t wait for them to approach you for help

Don’t tell them to give you a call if they need anything. You need to be proactive. A person who is grieving is unlikely to have the energy to register they need the support of friend, or take the step to call you. Offering practical assistance is useful for someone experiencing bereavement, and reminds them they are loved. Arrange to cook them dinner, do their grocery shopping, or take them to lunch or the cinema. Make concrete plans, so they know when to expect you, and then follow through on these plans. If you have the time, help with planning the funeral and making the necessary arrangements. This kind of support is truly invaluable.

Don’t pressure them into talking about how they feel – they will share what they’re going through with you when they’re ready. Often people aren’t ready to share until some time after the loss.

Offer to help with the funeral arrangements

Some people throw themselves into making arrangements for the funeral, others can’t face doing so. Offer to help, but don’t be pushy. Remember that the funeral choices are very much theirs to make.

Ask them about whether the deceased has left behind a will, any life insurance documentation or a funeral plan, as these can help to cover the costs of a funeral, but do so sensitively.

Be patient

Don’t expect the person to maintain their end of the friendship. They may seem closed off and cold, be terrible company, and even say hurtful things. You need to persevere. It may feel like they are trying to push you away, but don’t take it personally. Be consistently there for them, even when they don’t appreciate anything you do. They are experiencing one of the most distressing times in their life, the worst thing would be for them to feel alone.

Don’t try to fix anything

In the face of grief, your first instinct might be to say that everything will be OK. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s OK for things to not be OK. Being there for your friend is all you need to do.

Show love

Ultimately, letting the bereaved person know they are loved is most important. Express your love in small gestures, like hugs, cups of tea, putting out the bins, cooking dinner for them. Continue to show your love and support as weeks turn into months, and ordinary life appears to have resumed. Be willing to stand beside your friend through the worst of it, even when they can’t appreciate your help, even when it seems like they don’t want to talk to anyone. Eventually, they will accept what has happened, and be grateful to you for being there.

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