5 ways to support a grieving friend or relative

Bereavement Counsellor at St Clare Hospice, Beverley Warner, shares some advice on how we can better support our loved ones who are experiencing grief and bereavement
Published on: Wednesday 24 Jan 2018 at 11:45

Death is the one thing that we all experience in our lives, but often it can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is recently bereaved, and you may feel like you’re not sure how to help…

The last thing we want to do when we are supporting a friend or loved one who is experiencing grief is to accidentally upset them. However, nothing that we can say or do will take away the pain of bereavement, either. All we want to do is help… but how?

The death of a loved one is not something you ‘get over’; you simply learn how to cope, adjust, and manage the changes in your life. Aiming to be supportive, reliable, compassionate, understanding and patient are 5 ways that we can offer our support to our loved ones throughout this difficult journey.

There’s no need to completely change the way we interact; being yourself is a familiar source of comfort. Yet, taking extra care to be mindful and showing our genuine consideration will be greatly appreciated by a grieving person – even if it doesn’t appear to help or they don’t share their gratitude.

It is completely normal to feel anxious or worried about how to support friends and family members throughout difficult times. This 5-step guide aims to offer some advice and reassurance to those of us who want to support our loved ones in the best way we can.

1. Talk about it

It is normal to feel scared about making things more difficult or painful. We often find ourselves saying nothing, saying something we don’t really mean, or even avoiding that person. However, it is best to mention the bereavement first, when you first see the person after the death. It can come across negatively if you try to avoid talking about it, or act like it didn’t happen.

Try to avoid using cliché sentiments or platitudes when you talk with the bereaved person. It can feel like you are downplaying their loss. For example, ‘time is the greatest healer’ and ‘everything happens for a reason’. Also, be mindful if you’d like to express your faith to the person. They may not find it helpful, or comforting, to be told that ‘they are in a better place’.

Telling a person to ‘cheer up,’ is often meant in a kind way. However, it can feel like you are not taking into consideration their feelings. Saying this can actually cause people to withhold their grief, for fear of upsetting and annoying others.

Remember that it’s OK to not know what to say, and sometimes saying that is all you need to do. If the person isn’t ready to talk about it, that’s fine, too. Be patient – you don’t need to fill every silence.

2. Make promises that you can keep

If you tell someone, ‘if there’s anything you need, I’ll be here for you,’ you should really mean it. These kinds of things are often said at funerals, when emotions and motives run high. Frequently, people who are bereaved find that people say this in a kind-meaning way. Yet, very rarely does help or support materialise.

Additionally, instead of saying, ‘is there anything I can do?’ you might offer to help out with something specific. This makes it easier for the person to accept the help. For example, helping with cooking, household chores, or taking care of the kids, can be a huge relief.

3. Stay in touch

It can be the loneliest time for a bereaved person in the months after the death. Try to keep in touch with them to help them feel that they are not alone. You can also send a card or message on special occasions, as these times can be very difficult after a death. It’s always lovely to know that someone is thinking of you.

You can also continue to invite the person who has lost someone to join in with social activities. They may not want to at first, and that’s OK, but they might be very grateful for it one day.

4. Remember that everyone experiences grief differently

Although it might seem like the right thing to say, telling a person, ‘I know how you feel,’ can be unhelpful. It’s not likely that you will be able to understand exactly how the bereaved person will feel, even if you have experienced a something similar. You should also be careful not to make conversations about the person who has died all about how you are feeling and how difficult you are finding it.

5. Give them time

Feelings of losing a loved one will always be with you, so it can undermine a person’s feelings if they are told that they will ‘get over it’. Most of the time, you just learn to adjust to life without the person who has died.

It’s also important to remember that there is no time limit on grief. Suggesting to a bereaved person that they ‘should be over it by now’ puts unnecessary pressure on people. There is no time limit in which to be ‘over it’. Everyone is different.

Importantly, you should try not to assume that someone is OK, even if they appear to be doing just fine. Keep in mind that although it might seem like someone is coping, they may still need support.

The lead up to the death of a loved one can also be an extremely difficult and worrying time for a person. You might also offer your support then, too. However, although you may feel that you are helping if you try to reassure them that ‘everything will be OK,’ or that their loved one will possibly ‘get better,’ this could downplay the seriousness of the situation – so be sure to keep that in mind.

Being mindful, and helping in any small way, can make a big difference to someone who has lost a loved one, or may be facing bereavement in the near future. Even if it doesn’t take away the feelings they are experiencing, it is very likely that they will appreciate your consideration and compassion anyhow.

Beverley Warner is a Bereavement Co-ordinator and Counsellor at St Clare Hospice. With over 12 years of experience of working with personalised grief models, including EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing). Post Graduate Diploma in Psychodynamic Counselling, is Registered and Accredited with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and also runs her own private practice.

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