When it comes to helping others grieve, most of us don’t know what to do or say, and saying the wrong thing can devastate, anger and cause further pain to those suffering.

Grieving is an intensely emotional time, which may result in a state of confusion, forgetfulness, and fear connected with facing life without the person lost. It is critical to be patient and understanding. I will always remind you that it’s important to remember that everyone’s grief is unique and that there is no timetable for grief. The most effective way to help others is to be respectful to the fact that they are on their journey, and they will need to do it in in their own time – not yours.

A sensitive but essential conversation to have, we have to respect both the grieving person as well as those who do not understand what they are going through but wants to help.

Six years ago, I lost my best friend and soulmate; blessed with the love and care of those who not only knew and loved him but also me, I still struggled with comments. Unless you are in the shoes of the one in pain, you cannot understand what they are going through, and as a result, there are things that people may say that will not sit well with you.  I got mad, I got angry, I was discouraged when people would say “I know how you feel,” or “it has been a month you should start to get rid of his belongings” or even one year later, “it is time Joy, why aren’t you dating.” All of these were of the good intentions of others who cared and loved me, and it took time for me to realize that they only wanted the best for me.   I did not understand what I was dealing with and so I had to learn to stand up for myself and hold firm to my journey with no regrets and ignore the statements made with good intentions that did not sit well with me.

I hope we all can understand what it is like to be in each other’s shoes, give grace, and remember for the grieving person – it is their grief.

It is crucial for those who want to help to understand some key points.

Understand the grieving process:

The better your understanding of the grieving process, the better equipped you’ll be to help a friend or family member. In my last blog, The Five Stages of Greif, you can gain insight into what a person may be going through.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages. It is a roller-coaster of emotions, with highs, lows, and setbacks. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling your loved one what they “should” be feeling or doing. Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair, and fear are common, and they need reassurance that what they feel is reasonable. Don’t judge them or take their grief reactions personally.

There is no set timetable for grieving. For many people, healing can take 18-24 months, and for others, it may take less than that or more. Don’t pressure your loved one to move on.

How to support someone who’s grieving?

Those who are grieving may struggle with many intense and painful emotions and often feel alone in their grief, and this may make people uncomfortable about offering support. Do not let discomfort prevent you from reaching out to someone who is grieving. Now, more than ever is when they need your help. You don’t need to have answers or give advice; the most important thing you can do for them is to be there.

Acknowledge the situation and express your concern, ask how they are feeling, don’t assume you know, no two people process through to healing the same way and don’t be afraid to let them talk about their loved one, be patient and listen and let them know it is okay to cry. Be genuine and willing to sit in silence, just knowing you are there for them provides the right level of comfort.

What to say to someone who’s grieving?

While many of us are anxious about what to speak to a grieving person, it’s more important to listen. Often, we avoid talking about death or change the subject when the deceased person is mentioned. But those grieving need to feel that their loss is acknowledged and by listening with compassion and not offering advice you can take your cues from them on how to talk and listen which will help you know what to say and what not to say as well as how you can be a support system.

Keep in mind some may not be ready or able to talk, never try to force someone to open up, it’s essential to let your grieving friend or loved one know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk about their loss. And when it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions.

Appropriate comments to say to someone grieving

  • My heart goes out to you.   Keep it simple; you do not have to say a lot, this statement lets them know you care.
  • I cannot imagine how you feel. No one will ever know how those grieving are feeling. You can say it as a question to invite sharing and then listen.
  • You are not alone, and I am here. If you say this, mean it and follow through. Again, you can say this as a question to invite sharing, listen, and do not offer advice that you are not capable of providing.
  • What precisely can I do to help? There are many practical ways you can help a grieving person I recommend that you offer two choices since the grieving persons may not be able to think of anything. Some suggestions you can offer:
    • Shop for groceries or run errands
    • Drop off a casserole or other type of food
    • Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
    • Watch their children or pick them up from school
    • Look after your loved one’s pets
    • Go with them to a support group meeting
    • Accompany them on a walk
    • Take them to lunch or a movie
    • Share an enjoyable activity (sport, game, puzzle, art project)

What not to say to someone who’s grieving.

While many of us are anxious about what to speak to a grieving person, it’s even more important what not to say. Often with excellent intentions, we attempt to say things we think may help, but in most cases, what you say can cause anger, depression, and added suffering.

Comments to avoid saying to say to someone who’s grieving:

  • I know how you feel – No, you do not, everyone grieves differently. Even if you have had a loss in your life, there is no comparison between anyone’s griefs and the time it takes to heal.
  • It just takes time – This keeps someone stuck in a waiting mode they do not need to be in and could lose years of life.
  • You need to be alone – Isolation keeps people stuck; we need others to lean on and support us.
  • You need to keep busy – It’s not about a lot of action, it is about the right action.
  • It was gods will – at this point, you could turn someone away from God, made to feel misplaces guilt that something they did result in their loss.
  • You should be over it, or get over it – This is insulting to the grieving person that an arbitrary deadline has been set. This disregards their pain and the event itself.   Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to getting on with because they feel this means “forgetting” their loved one. Besides, moving on is much easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
  • You’ll find someone else – devaluates what was lost as if they were readily replaceable and is not helpful and the grieving person’s solution is not first to replace what was lost, but instead to heal their heart
  • Look at what you have to be thankful about. They know they have things to be grateful for, but right now they are not important.
  • He’s in a better place now. The bereaved may or may not believe this. Keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked.

Always consider statements that begin with “You should” or “You will.” These statements are too directive. Instead, you could start your comments with: “Have you thought about…” or “You might try…”

Continue with ongoing support

You’re loved one will continue to grieve after the funeral is over, and the immediate assistance you give ceases as you move on with life. It is essential to recognize the length of the grieving process varies from person to person, and often lasts longer than most people expect. They will continue to need your support for months or even years to come.

Stay in touch with them by checking in with them, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Do not assume that “time heals all wounds.”

Though they may look fine on the outside, inside, they may still be struggling.

Be cautious in saying things like, “You are so strong” or “You look so well.” This may put pressure on them to keep up appearances and to hide their feelings.

Be aware that their life will never be the same again, over time they will accept a “new” normal, but you never fully “get over” the death of a loved one. The may learn to accept the loss, and the pain will lessen in time, but the sadness may never completely go away.

Remember them at certain days of the year, which can be particularly hard for them to get through. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, the day of their passing and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever they need.

We all want to help those who suffer, and by using these as a guide, your support can make a difference.