The death of a loved one is one of life’s toughest moments.  Grief is not only difficult for the individual experiencing the loss, but also for those who care about that individual. Many times, people find it hard to know what to do or say – and feel uncomfortable talking to a grieving individual. But don’t let your discomfort dissuade you from supporting that person and her wellness.

First and foremost, it is important to understand grief and how people experience it.  Grief stricken individuals may deal with a host of emotions, including shock, denial, sadness, being scared, guilt, anger, and depression. Any feelings a grieving person experiences are normal.

According to the widely accepted Kuber-Ross model of grief, the grieving individual may experience five stages of grief, including denial (this isn’t happening), anger (It’s not fair), bargaining (hope that they can delay death, i.e. for terminally ill), depression (nothing matters anymore), and acceptance (accepting the loss and moving forward).  The grieving individual may move back and forth through the stages of this cycle or may not go through certain stages before reaching acceptance.   However, knowing about this cycle will help you to understand what a loved one may be going through.

It is difficult to know what to do or say to the grieving friend, family member or co-worker.  We may feel awkward or uncomfortable saying anything.  Maybe we don’t know what to say or are afraid of upsetting them.  Maybe we fear saying something will make them feel sad all over again.  Maybe we will be uncomfortable if they start crying.

Saying nothing is the poorest approach, but what should you say? One thing to avoid saying is, I know what you are going through.  Grief is different for everyone.  The relationship, the level of closeness and an individual’s personality is different for everyone so you can’t possibly know exactly what they are going through.  Instead, say, I know I felt overwhelmed with feelings when my Mother died or It was very difficult when my friend died, or I know you miss them terribly.  You may even say, I don’t know what to say.

Many times, the grieving individual feels alone in their grief.  By not acknowledging their grief, they may feel even more hurt and isolated, so talking to them about it can be very important for them.  Here are some suggestions of how to deal with a grieving individual.

  1. Send a card or note.  If you don’t feel like you can approach the person face-to-face about this topic, send a card or note acknowledging that you understand they are in pain.  Even a few weeks after the loss, another thinking of you card is thoughtful.
  2. Worried about words?  Give them a hug or a touch on the arm to let them know you are there for them.
  3. Ask if there is anything you can do to help.  Offer to help with household tasks, meals, or watching the children.  Many people don’t necessarily want to accept help, so let your approach be very inviting, such as, “I’d love to have your children come over and play on Tuesday afternoon,” or “I have dinner to put in the freezer, when could I drop it off?”  
  4. Let them talk.  You don’t need to do anything but listen.  Sometimes, the grieving individual just wants to share stories about the person they lost.  Sometimes they want to vent.  They don’t expect you to fix the problem.  They just need an ear.  Remember, it is always appropriate to respond with I don’t know what to say or I can see you are in a lot of pain.
  5. Check up on them later and ask how they are doing.  Even though a person appears to be doing well on the outside, they are probably still hurting on the inside.  Acknowledge that grief is a process, not a one-time event.  Along that note, realize there is no right or wrong time to stop grieving.  If this is a close individual, mark the anniversary and realize this will be a difficult time for them.  Sending a note or talking to them at this time is appropriate.
  6. Don’t judge their feelings.  Reassure them of that any and all their feelings are normal, no matter how crazy they might seem.
  7. Suggest the grieving individual do something to symbolize or memorialize the deceased.    Some suggestions might be journaling memories, making a scrapbook of the loved one, planting a special tree or bush in honor, purchasing a special charm necklace to represent the loved one, or attending an event or activity their loved one would have enjoyed.
  8. Find a local grief support group and pass on that information with a kind, I am not sure if you would be interested or not, but I found this information for grief support.  I could attend with you if you would like.  Many hospitals offer groups or check your local yellow pages.

Finally, keep an eye on the grieving individual.  If they begin to feel suicidal or start to abuse drugs or alcohol, or exhibit other dangerous or self-defeating behaviors, encourage professional help.  Be careful not to minimize their grief when approaching them about their behaviors.  Saying, I can see you are in a lot of pain over what happened.  Maybe talking to a professional might be helpful?

Remember, no matter how difficult it is for you to talk to someone who is grieving, it can really help in their grief process.