Being there for someone who is grieving can be intimidating and overwhelming. This is true for those who have not experienced deep loss before, as they may feel like they cannot relate and so will surely say the wrong thing, and for those who know what it’s like to lose someone they care for profoundly because it can bring up discomfort and pain that they spend most of their time avoiding.
Andrea Warnick, psychotherapist and one of the developers of Canadian Virtual Hospice’s MyGrief.ca, and Zainib Abdullah, psychotherapist and co-founder of WellNest Psychotherapy Services, share their advice for those who want to show up in the best way for their grieving friends and family.
How to support someone who’s grieving
Do tend to your own grief and acknowledge your discomfort as the supporter
We have difficulty saying the right thing as a supporter. “Acknowledging that for ourselves could be helpful because it helps us to regulate our discomfort and pain in that moment of witnessing pain,” says Abdullah. “Sometimes actually just saying, ‘I know nothing I could say right now would make this easier, but I’m here for you. Or that I love you,” is enough.
Do be present
Having the right words isn’t always necessary, but showing up for the grieving person and being willing to talk about who died is. According to Abdullah, “letting them know that whatever they’re feeling is okay and it makes sense,” is crucial. This includes “any reaction, or any expression of any emotion—or a lack of expression or emotion, because some people may not express grief outwardly or in the conventional way we think of grief as sadness.”
Do use the name of the person who died
Most people who have lost someone do not want that individual to fade away and become forgotten, so even though our initial reaction is to assume that they don’t want to talk about the person that died, the opposite may, in fact, be true.
Allowing the grieving party to share stories and memories of the dead can be helpful and therapeutic, so say their name and give those who lost them space to share.
“When my dad died,” Warnick says, “one of my colleagues said to me, ‘Andrea, I never met your dad, I wish I had but I would love to hear about him. I would love to learn about him. If you ever want to tell stories about him, I’d love to do that.’ And I just think that was probably one of the most helpful things that was said to me.”
Do use intentional language
Warnick suggests replacing popular euphemisms for death like “passed away” or “passed on” with the reality of the situation. Saying outright that someone died may be uncomfortable at first, but “it shows that as a supporter [you’re] comfortable talking about this, [you’re] not going to skirt around it.”
Do offer concrete, useful ways you can help
Instead of just throwing out a “let me know if I can do anything,” offer specifics on how you can help, like cooking meals, or providing childcare.
Warnick mentions that some of her clients’ friends have offered to cover parking fees at hospitals, which can rack up, and have also invited the person to spend time going for walks or watching movies. “Continue to include the person for the long haul. It might be that you’re inviting the person over and they don’t want to come. You’ve had 99 times of them saying ‘no,’ but still ask for 100. Don’t take it personally,” Warnick advises.
Remind yourself that nothing you say or do will bring the person back, or even make things better, however, your presence is the most powerful thing you can offer to someone who is grieving.