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How to Help

How to Help Someone Cope with the Loss of a Loved One

When you know someone, whether a friend or your child, who has lost a loved one it can be difficult to know what to do. You may want to help, but be scared to say the wrong thing or feel as though it is not your place to step in. All of these feelings are normal, but starting a conversation is the most important thing you can do to help.

Here are a few tips to help you talk to a grieving friend or family member:

Listen without trying to cure. Being truly present to a grieving person, without judging or denying their pain, without trying to fix the unfixable, is the single most important gift you may give someone who is grieving.

Understand that this will take time. This is not like a cold or a cut that will continuously get better. Grief will come in unexpected waves, affecting a person throughout their lifetime. Each person, even within a family, will have a different time schedule and, sometimes, it gets worse before the intensity and frequency of the waves change.

Be direct and honest. Use real language (e.g., “he died”) versus euphemisms such as “passed away” … “gone to a better place” … “not with us anymore” …etc. In our well-intentioned way, we are frequently overprotective and tip-toe around issues of death and dying. This language especially confuses children. “If he’s in a better place, why am I not there?”

If you don’t believe it, or you don’t have an answer, don’t say anything. It is always better to remain quiet, or admit what we don’t know, rather than responding to fill the space. This will create a sense of trust between you and the person grieving.

Don’t avoid topics that include the deceased. After a death, we need outlets to create the significance of the person who died. We do that through talking about that person, memories and legacies.

Allow for humor and lightness. Grieving people need breaks from their grief and time to remember what it feels like to be ‘normal’ while adjusting to the ‘new normal.’

Take the lead from the person who is grieving. Be mindful of the surroundings when engaging with a grieving individual. Emotional safety can play an important role in the behavior and effect of someone who is grieving. It is very common for someone to avoid sharing their grief when in a public setting such as a school playground and supermarket. Try to read their behavioral or verbal cues and let them know that you have been thinking of them and will check in when you the setting is more private or safe.

Be aware of your own limitations. Many people cannot sit with another person in pain, especially when there is nothing functional that can be done. There are many ways to support the grieving person – assisting with childcare, distracting them with movies and meals, offering a second home, helping with the household bills and mail, etc.