Dos and Don’ts for Helping Someone Who’s Grieving

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When a friend or family member experiences the death of a loved one, it’s often hard to respond in a way that feels meaningful. You may feel as though there’s nothing you could say or do to truly make things better or help them cope with the pain. But even the smallest gesture may be more appreciated than you imagine. Here, some of the best ways to help someone you care about through this difficult time:

Don’t be afraid to talk about the deceased

After Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died unexpectedly at age 47, she told NPR, “People kind of looked at me like I was a ghost. And I think they were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they hardly said anything at all.”

It’s understandable that you might have feel anxiety about saying something insensitive or upsetting after someone dies. But one of the most helpful things you can do is to simply acknowledge the loss, says Pilar Jennings, a psychoanalyst and grief expert and the author of To Heal a Wounded Heart. “Grief can be incredibly isolating, which is so painful because there’s magnitude of emotion that can be too much to handle on your own,” she says. “It’s helpful when friends and family convey that they’re not afraid to talk about death or about the person who died, and that they understand the gravity and complexity of what’s happened.”

Do let them talk

Still not sure what to say? Listening is what’s most helpful to someone who is grieving. “You can simply ask in a non-direct way: How are you feeling now?” says Jennings. (This is better than the broad question, “How have you been?,” to which the answer is inevitably, “Not great.”) If you can listen without judgment, you’ll help them release difficult emotions, she adds.

Do keep reaching out

People often show up in droves during the period immediately following a loss, but then they get back to their own lives. This is when your friend or family member needs your loving support the most, so keep texting and calling. See if you can stop by with some coffee cake/Chinese food/cold cuts. Make plans with them so they aren’t alone on holidays. You may also want to organize a meal train to keep a parade of lasagnas and chicken soups coming well after the funeral. You can set one up for free at mealtrain.com.

Don’t make it their job to figure out how you can help

Instead of offering an open-ended “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” it’s easier on them if you offer specific, yet nonobtrusive ways that you can help. “Sometimes the quotidian responsibilities of life can be too much too manage, so think about what you can take off their plate,” suggests Jennings.

Depending on their needs, you might offer to mow the lawn, take the kids to soccer practice, or pick up their dry cleaning. Text after your Target run to let them know you’re leaving a bag of non-perishables like paper towels and toilet paper on their porch. Or simply offer up some company if they’d like it.

Do invite—but don’t push

When you’re dealing with the after-effects of a loss, it can be challenging to muster the energy or enthusiasm for social interaction. “It’s important to be sensitive to the fact that they may not feel like their usual selves,” says Jennings. “Sometimes it’s tough just to simulate normalcy.”

Offering invitations is okay, but don’t press them to accept. And remember that a grieving person may be more comfortable in situations where they don’t have to make conversation, like going to a concert or a movie rather than dinner with friends.

Do hold your judgment

Your intentions may be good, but it’s best to avoid any insinuation that there’s a timeline for grief or a right way to move through the grieving process, says Jennings. “Saying things like ‘Maybe it’s time to move on’ just reinforces the sense that people really don’t get the enormity of what you’re experiencing,” she says.

The same goes for statements like She would want you to feel better/start dating again/get back to normal. “It’s one thing to say your loved one would want you to feel that it’s okay to feel joy again, because sometimes there’s guilt about that,” says Jennings. “But often those reminders of he/she would want just rankles.” What really helps people feel better, she says, is to allow them to feel whatever they’re actually feeling.

Don’t try to frame the loss in a positive way

Even if you know that your friend or family member is religious or believes in the afterlife, it’s best not to talk about the deceased being “at peace” or in a “better place.”

“That’s such a denial of the loss, both for the person who’s deceased and the survivor,” says Jennings. “The intention can be good and loving, but you should avoid any minimization of the impact of the loss.” Instead, give them space to tell you what they’re thinking or wondering about the deceased.

Do be sensitive if you think they need more support

Remember, grief is a normal process—one that everyone will experience differently—and not a problem to be solved. “Sometimes when survivors are nudged to get help they also feel judged, like there’s something wrong with how they’re grieving,” says Jennings.

If you do feel that they could benefit from professional help, try to express your thoughts gently. “You could say—in a loving way—‘This really sounds like a lot to go through. If I can ever be helpful in thinking about resources or other forms of support, please let me know.” That said, if someone is unable to function or care for themselves, or if their behavior radically radically changes, that could be a sign of depression. “You should use discretion in determining whether the person needs immediate help,” she says.

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