How to Support Loved Ones in Grief

ImageGrief: an experience that many of us don’t know what to do with or how to react to when we come in contact with it. Before my recent experiences with grief, I really didn’t have much of an idea of how to support others in grief. I had my therapeutic training, but that only goes so far and doesn’t always translate to being there for loved ones. It seems to me that in Western culture, at least in the U.S., we are so far removed from the concept of death that we become extremely uncomfortable when it touches us. For this reason, I wasn’t surprised when many of those close to me had no idea how to support me in my grief after the loss of my mother. For those that did give me support that worked, I was pleasantly surprised. For those that didn’t, I mostly understood.

Below I have compiled a few pieces of advice for those close to someone grieving. These are things that did and didn’t work for me while I was (and continue to be) marching down the grief highway. They may or may not be true for others!

  • Do call and check in regularly. Ask if I need anything, including practical things like food or childcare. Keep calling after the loss happens. Keep checking in and offering help, regardless of whether or not I call you back. Don’t expect me to call you back. Hearing your voice and knowing you are here for me is worth so much, even if I don’t respond to you.
  • Don’t say you “can’t imagine” what I am going through. I know I’ve been guilty of saying this to people before I experienced major loss in my life. Having now been on the receiving end of this one, I can see it really doesn’t help. For me, when I heard this, I felt isolated and separate, as if I was going through it alone.
  • Do express to me your understanding that death is a natural and normal part of life. A friend of mine simply said about my experience, “We are all going to experience that.” Even though he hasn’t experienced it yet, and maybe can’t imagine it, I felt his solidarity with my experience. I felt supported.
  • Do share your grief stories with me. This has been one of the most valuable forms of support to me. Seeing other people who have come out the other side of grief helps immensely.
  • Don’t pay me unexpected visits. Give me space to be in my cave. Call if you want to visit, and wait for my response.
  • Do show up for me, especially if you are a close friend. I was really dismayed that a person I had considered one of my closest friends barely acknowledged the loss I experienced, and simply did not show up. I even confronted her about it. She promptly apologized, explained herself, and then continued to not show up. I was especially disappointed because she is one of the few people I know close to my age who has lost a parent, and she is someone I have felt very comfortable with in expressing these difficult emotions in the past. I can only guess that she either A) hasn’t dealt with her own grief around the loss of her father a few years back and is therefore not comfortable showing up, or B) is not as good of a friend as I once thought she was. I haven’t felt very compelled to reach out to learn which one it is. Okay, excuse the rant! Any feedback will be appreciated.
  • Don’t give me the sad face the first time you see me in passing after the loss. Seriously, this is the worst. I’m at the grocery store, in a great mood, weeks after my mom died, her death being the last thing on my mind at the moment. And there is my friend, who sees me and immediately associates me with all things tragic. The overly concerned, “How are you?” Well, I was just great, until I ran into you! I am absolutely sure I’ve done this in the past. I remember bringing it up to a friend who’d recently lost her dad the first time I saw her out at a concert after her loss, and she told me straight up not to talk about it. Understand, with grief come myriad emotions. It is not just about depression and despair. For me, there has been a surprising amount of joy in the release of my mom’s spirit. So, don’t project your idea of what grief is onto me. Instead, when you see me, greet me with an uplifting smile. Let me know how happy you are to see me. Tell me you heard about my loss and are available to talk or help out in any way. Pay attention and respond to my response. If I just nod and smile and say thank you, move on to the next subject.
  • Do share your memories with me. In the time of my mom’s passing, family and friends gathered together on several occasions. It was such a treat for me to hear stories about my mom from those in her generation, stories I had never heard that helped me get to know her in ways I never did before. Another extended family member sent me old pictures of my mom. These stories and mementos are such a sacrament, like healing salve on an open wound.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Please gift us with your contribution to this list, because I know that everyone has a different experience with grief. Thanks for reading!



12 thoughts on “How to Support Loved Ones in Grief

  1. Pingback: How to Support Loved Ones in Grief | Relationships

  2. Thanks for the link. This is a wonderful list. And like you, I know I have been guilty of at least one or more of your “do nots.” I looked around a little bit and found out that your mother has not been gone so very long. My mother, and father, both died in January. It’s been a tremendous adjustment. And like you, I watched my father die a little every day with Alzheimer’s beginning in 2008. His death has been a little easier to deal with than Mom’s, partially because of that. We found out Mom had pancreatic cancer last December and had only 6 weeks to take care of her before she died. I wish we could have cared for her longer.

    For me, once the initial, all-encompassing grief had passed, like most things, my “spells” of grief gradually became fewer and shorter in duration. Although, I’m having a bit more trouble right now as we head into the time period of the last family meal we had together (which happened to be on Thanksgiving last year), and the days that mark the one-year anniversary of so many events that were earth-shaking: Mom’s diagnosis-Dec.2, Dad’s hospitalization-Dec. 4th, the moves to an assisted-living apartment for Mom and a nursing home for Dad, Mom’s hospitalization on Christmas evening, the days we spent at Hospice. . . Some of these days play like a crystal clear movie in my memory. I got all kinds of upset yesterday morning because I was thinking about putting up Mom’s little white artificial Christmas tree here in our house somewhere. Boy did that lead to a flood of memories.

    Anyway, I noted that you must be younger than me as you are the mother of a young one and I am the grandmother of two. You will have to live more years without your mother’s wisdom and support than I will, but hopefully you will be able to find that within yourself. I still feel connected to my Mom, and my Dad. More so now, than I did when I first experienced their loss. So I think I will be able to keep them in my life.

    Thinking of you.

    • You are so welcome for the link! It was a great article you wrote. And thank you for your comment. I am sometimes able to find my mother’s wisdom inside of myself, and sometimes flailing! Her birthday is in a few days, and I’m feeling more waves of grief as it approaches. And with the grief comes joy. It is amazing that when we touch the depths of our sadness, we can feel EVERY feeling so much more intensely. I wish you well in your ongoing journey. I will be following you!

  3. Thanks for your words of wisdom. My experience is that those who have not done their grief work cannot be there for you if you are doing your grief work. I have learned to forgive them and become a model of how messy grief work can be. 💖

  4. The loss of my grandmother precipitated a deep depression. I realised that rather than having a mother & a grandmother, I actually had 2 part-time mothers. One of the most helpful things said to me was the answer to my question – how long does grieving take: “It takes as long as it takes.” This made my response to the loss seem okay, however it was expressed & however long it took.

  5. Pingback: Do Expectations Ruin Relationships? | FoolishSageWisdom

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