It’s difficult and painful to see someone you care about suffering after a loss. We can feel helpless at these times, but the good news is that there are ways we can make a difference. Here’s some advice on how to help a grieving friend.

 

What to do for a grieving friend

Grief is something you can’t fix, but you can ease it. Offering love, support and a willingness to listen are all ways of helping a grieving friend.

  • Offer your sympathy. Don’t feel you have to avoid the topic. The loss is going to be on your friend’s mind a lot of the time, so being reminded of it is unlikely to take them by surprise.
  • Physical contact – a hug, an arm around the back, a hand on the arm or shoulder, holding their hand – is something that often helps when comforting a grieving friend. A few people prefer not to be hugged or touched. You may know your friend’s feelings on physical contact already, but, if you’re not sure, you can ask if they would like a hug.
  • Be patient, understanding and kind. It will be difficult for your friend to rely on you if they feel they’re frustrating or inconveniencing you.
  • Small kindnesses are meaningful. Visits, cards and letters, invitations to events they might enjoy (making it clear that they’re under no obligation to accept), stopping by to drop off baked goods. It’s clear that you care from the fact that you’re reading this, looking for how to console a grieving friend. Let your friend know that you care, in whatever way feels most natural to you.
  • Help out with essential tasks, such as shopping, cooking, cleaning and childcare, or with the practical difficulties that arise after a death, such as arranging the funeral. It can be difficult to look after yourself when you’re grieving; your friend may struggle to find the energy to prepare meals for themselves, but being hungry is likely to make them feel worse. Dropping around with something to eat, or visiting to cook for them, will mean a lot.
  • If you’re wondering how to help a grieving friend long-distance or in lockdown, you can make a real difference with a call, a handwritten letter, sending flowers or presents (a book they might enjoy, for example), or even a thoughtful email or text message.

 

What to say to a grieving friend

  • Assure your friend that you love them, you care about them and you’re there if you need anything.
  • If you knew the person who died, share your memories of them.
  • If you didn’t know the person who died yourself, you can invite your friend to talk about them. Be clear, when you ask, that your friend can choose not to answer. For example, ‘You don’t have to, but, if you’d like to, could you tell me what your grandmother was like?’
  • If you don’t know what to say, just listen. Ask if your friend would like to talk about what they’re going through. You can’t say anything to change what’s happened, but you can give them the opportunity to express their feelings.
  • Remember that different people find different things helpful or painful when they’re grieving. Some people need to talk about their grief; some people need something to distract them from it. If your friend seems uncomfortable with the conversation, change the subject, but let them know they’re free to talk to you about anything at any time.

 

What not to say to a grieving friend

It’s possible to slip up in this difficult, emotional situation, despite your best intentions. Here are some things it’s best not to say.

  • Don’t tell them you know exactly what they’re going through or how they feel. Show that you understand that they’re in pain, and offer your support, but grief is a very complex and personal thing, and people can react badly to having their grief compared to someone else’s. If your friend says, ‘You’ve been through this too, haven’t you?’ – for example, if you’ve both lost your fathers – it’s okay to agree and talk about your experience.
  • Don’t tell them that it’s time to move on. Grief takes its own time, and your friend may feel their pain is being ignored if it seems like you’re trying to rush them.
  • Don’t tell them that they will or should ‘get over it’. Your friend might express the fear that they’ll feel this way forever, in which case it’s okay to assure them that they’ll get past or through the way they’re feeling right now. Avoid the phrase ‘get over’, though, which implies that you expect them to forget their loved one completely.
  • Don’t diminish the loss by saying, for example, ‘She lived a long life; it was her time’ or ‘At least he’s not suffering any more’ or ‘You had a difficult relationship with him, didn’t you?’ Although these attempts to ‘soften’ a loss are well-intentioned, your friend may feel that you’re telling them they don’t have the right to grieve.
  • Only offer religious words of comfort if they fit your friend’s beliefs. ‘You’ll see him again in Heaven’ may console a grieving friend if they’re Christian, but it’s a painful thing for an atheist to hear. Even vaguer spiritual sentiments, such as ‘She’s in a better place’ or ‘Everything happens for a reason’, can be upsetting.

 

Supporting a grieving friend over the long term

Grief is long-lasting, and it can feel isolating. As people don’t always know how to support a grieving friend, they can sometimes withdraw, meaning that your friend may lose friendships in this time when they especially need them.

Stay in touch and make sure your friend knows they can contact you for support. You don’t specifically have to say you’re worried about their grief every time you check in; just calling or texting to let them know about any events that might interest them, for example, will let them know that you’re still around and thinking of them.

One of the simplest and most important aspects of helping a friend through grief is just being a friend. Talk about your shared interests; keep them updated on your life and show interest in theirs; invite them for walks in the park; laugh together. Your presence is a reminder that they still have people who love them, and that there are still good things in their life.

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