When Someone Else is Grieving

In addition to grieving and needing the support of others, it is also common to be in the position of providing such support. This page will help you understand how to be of help when someone is grieving.

It is a difficult position: one of volatility, tears, and helplessness. Because of our aforementioned death and grief aversion, the following advice for people in this situation is not common knowledge, although it is common sense:

  • Do concrete domestic tasks: laundry, dishes, handle bills, take care of pets, cook
  • Do not assume that someone is not grieving because they don’t show it publically
  • Do remember important dates of the deceased person, even after time has passed: birthdays, anniversaries, death-iversaries
  • Do share memories of the deceased person
  • Don’t try to “speed up” grief; it will take as long as it needs to (or never end)

A favorite quick-guide article of ours is “How to Help a Grieving Friend: 11 Things to Do When You’re Not Sure What to Do” by Megan Devine of www.refugeingrief.com

It’s take-aways are thus:

  1. Grief belongs to the griever.
    You are a supporter. Your role is not central. Follow your friend’s lead…give advice sparingly, if at all, only if asked.
  2. Stay present and state the truth
    Avoid comparisons of past or future to the present. The present is painful, and that is ok. Be there with it. Stick with the truth: This hurts, I love you, I am here.
  3. Don’t try to fix the unfixable
    It is a relief for a grieving person to have a friend that shows no interest in taking the pain away. Don’t try to fix in general.
  4. Be willing to witness searing, unbearable pain.
    To do #4 while also practicing #3 is very, very hard.
  5. This is not about you.
    Your role as a friend won’t be easy. You may be hurt, feel ignored or unappreciated. Your friend cannot show up for their part of the relationship right now. Don’t take it personally.
  6. Anticipate, don’t ask
    Do not say “Call me if you need anything”. They won’t call, and it’s not because they don’t want/need your help. It’s because they do not have the energy and clarity to know when to ask. Make concrete offers and be reliable: “I will stop by each morning to give your dog a quick walk.”
  7. Do the recurring things.
    You can’t do the real work of grieving for the person (see #1). You can lessen the burden of every day life for them. Supporting your friend in small but consistent ways, especially with household chores, etc, is tangible evidence of love.
  8. Tackle projects together
    If there are difficult tasks to be done (preparing a funeral, moving items from a deceased person’s room) offer your assistance and follow through. be there, and follow their lead.
  9. Run interference
    There may be an influx of people, even good-intentioned, that can be overwhelming for the griever, making the personal experience of grieving overly social. Be a gatekeeper and point person if you can.
  10. Educate and advocate
    As other people ask for information about your friend, educate them (with subtlety) and normalize grief. Make it clear: “She has her good and bad moments and will for some time to come. The grief will not stop…she will learn how to carry it with her.”
  11. Love
    Show your love. Be there, do something, say something. Be willing to stand next to that gaping hole that has opened in your friend’s life, unflinching and not looking away. Be willing to not know, and to be afraid. Listen. Be brave. Be present.

Hidden Messages in Standard Responses

Be aware of the hidden messages behind common grief responses.
(And check out these funny cartoons as well: https://whatsyourgrief.com/what-not-to-say-to-a-griever-3/)

What is said… What they hear… What they want to say back…
“He’s in a better place.” This place (and your grief) isn’t good enough. I’m not there, so it doesn’t matter.
“She brought this on
 herself.”
It’s her fault; she deserved what she got. Pointing fingers and blame distracts from the reality of the situation, which is that I am sad.
“There is a reason for
 everything.”
Your wants and wishes don’t matter in the grand scheme. What possible reason could there be for this darkness?
“Aren’t you over him
 yet? He has been dead for a while now.”
Stop grieving, you’re disruptive and you aren’t grieving right. You’re too much. I will never be “over” it while I am alive.
“At least…-” “you can
 have another child still.” “it’s over.” “it’s not as bad as it could have
 been.”
Your pain isn’t so bad because there’s always a sunnier tomorrow. That doesn’t mean it’s not bad NOW. Stop trying to make this better; you can’t.  
“She was such a good
 person God wanted her.”
You’re not good enough to keep her. Why does God get to have everything? I don’t believe in God; Don’t emphasize that I don’t have any control over anything.
“I know how you feel.” Your pain isn’t new or unique. No you don’t, because this is mine.
“Be strong.” Stop being weak; being weak is ugly. I can’t be, I don’t want to be, I’m tired of being strong for others. I want to be accepted for what’s going on right now.

Yes, you will mess up and say the wrong thing. You will fumble your words even though you read this page and thought you were prepared. The most important thing? Be real, be empathetic. Practice active listening, without judgment. Don’t tell anyone else how to grieve. Step into the darkness with your pal. Witness, witness, witness.

You can learn loads about how to hear and speak according to basic needs, a priceless tool for empathy, in our section on Nonviolent Communication within the Love cornerstone.

As we’re nearing the end of the Grief section, you can decide where to go next. Either way, we highly recommend the Resources page to wrap up the section on Grief, Loss, Death, and Dying. It is an easy-to-reference tool kit for times of hardship.