When a loved one is grieving a death, you want to do anything you can to help them feel better.
The problem is, in a society that struggles to sit with negative emotions, many of us don’t know what to do when a friend or family member is experiencing loss.
“Grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one. We are all individuals and grief can look different in each of us,” says Dr. Lianne Hirano, associate medical director of palliative care at Harborview Medical Center.
If a loved one is grieving, they may want to have people around or they might prefer to have privacy. Some people may dive into work while others will turn to cultural and spiritual practices for solace.
You might also notice your loved one has a change in appetite, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping and exhaustion, among other symptoms. And their emotions can span from anger and frustration to loneliness and sadness to numbness, guilt and even relief, Hirano says.
It’s understandable if all of this makes you feel overwhelmed or unprepared, but the key to supporting your loved one is showing up for them anyway. As for what to say, Hirano has some pointers.
Don’t say: “I understand what you’re going through” — even if you’ve experienced loss
While you are trying to empathize with your loved one, statements like this can actually make them feel less understood.
Other losses you’ve experienced — while painful and significant in their own right — are different than the death of a close friend or family member. By bringing up your own experiences, you risk putting your bereaved loved one in a position to console you instead of receiving support themselves.
Hirano even recommends against saying things like “I know how you feel” if you have experienced the death of a loved one.
“Even if you have experienced your own significant loss, because grief is so individual and personal, we cannot truly ever fully understand what our bereaved loved ones are going through,” she explains.
Instead say: “I’m here to listen”
Instead of sharing your own experiences, focus on active listening.
This looks like paying attention to your friend without thinking about what to say in response, making eye contact, listening without judgement, and paraphrasing back what they have said or asking questions to gain more clarity.
Giving your loved one space to talk can provide a helpful outlet and, in cases when they don’t want to talk, simply being present and letting them know you want to be there with them makes a difference.
Don’t say: “Everything happens for a reason”
We often use platitudes when we don’t know what to say, are uncomfortable with the depth or intensity of someone’s sorrow, or want to make sense of a complicated, incomprehensible situation. These statements might make us feel less uncomfortable by giving us something to fill the silence, but they do nothing to help the individual who’s grieving.
Even in a case where your friend holds a belief system that things happen for a reason, hearing this doesn’t change the pain they are experiencing. In general, platitudes subliminally ask a bereaved person to act happier or acknowledge a silver lining in order to make others feel more comfortable. These statements don’t allow space for the depth and complexity of your friend’s feelings.
“Platitudes can unintentionally minimize the emotions and the personal process that your loved one may be working through,” Hirano says.
Instead say: “I wish I could find the right words. Please know I want to be here for you in the ways that I can.”
It’s common to feel uncomfortable in silence or unsure of what to say to a bereaved loved one. Instead of jumping to a platitude, acknowledge that you don’t know what to say but want to support your loved one.
“Don’t underestimate the power of just being present and showing up. Sitting quietly with someone who is grieving can be incredibly powerful,” Hirano says.
You don’t have to have all the answers or make your loved one’s loss make sense. The act of being with them in their pain and confusion can help them feel less alone and give them a safe space to work through their thoughts and feelings.
Don’t say: “It’s time to move on”
Moving through grief takes time. People who are grieving can’t “snap out” of the emotions they are feeling, and by telling a friend to do so you can make them feel like you don’t care or you don’t believe their feelings are genuine.
While you want your loved one to feel better — and it might be hard to watch them feel depressed, angry or frustrated — it’s important to remember that they need time to process their grief.
Instead say: “It’s okay to feel those things”
Let your loved one know that you are there for them no matter what they are feeling. Creating a nonjudgmental space allows your grieving friend to move through feelings from confusion to anger — even in cases where this looks like anger at the person who died, doctors or spiritual figures.
If your friend is experiencing debilitating grief, especially if this grief extends a year after the death of a loved one, it’s OK to express your concern — just be sure to not accuse or shame your friend for their feelings of grief.
Share that you care about them and want to help them as they navigate their thoughts and feelings. For some people — including those experiencing prolonged grief, called complicated grief — it can also help to see a mental health professional.
Don’t say: “What can I do to help support you?” on repeat
Asking what you can do to help your loved one allows you to get their perspective and provide the support they desire (versus what you assume they want). However, if they aren’t sure what will help or they don’t have an answer, continually being asked can start to feel like a burden.
Your attempt to help might instead make your loved one feel they need to identify and assign you a task in order to make sure you are OK and feel that you have contributed.
Instead: Take supportive action
In this case, actions do speak louder than words.
Look around to see if there are any chores or errands that need to be done, then do them. Small things like taking out the trash, getting groceries or doing the laundry make life a little easier for your loved one. You can also make food or bring over a favorite dish — just remember that grief affects appetite, so don’t take it personally if the food goes uneaten, Hirano says.
It’s also helpful to check in around the anniversary of a death or loss and holidays or other meaningful dates, as these can be especially difficult. On these dates, reach out and offer support, be it babysitting the kids for an afternoon or coming over so your friend isn’t alone on that day.
And while you’re supporting your loved one, make sure you are taking care of yourself, too.
Caring for a grieving loved one is hard. Be sure to practice self-care and give yourself grace if you say the wrong thing. Your loved one doesn’t need you to be perfect at this, they need you to keep showing up and providing love and care.