Friends and family members can create a robust support system for someone dealing with the loss of a spouse, child, or anyone close to them.
However, it’s common for this support system to ebb in the weeks after the funeral or memorial service. Out-of-town guests return home. People go back to their jobs. And the grieving person is often alone, sometimes for the first time in their life. This is when you can make a real difference by reaching out.
Set a reminder on your phone or computer to call, text, or email. If you’re local and your friend or family member is strong enough for a visit, set up a day and time to see them in person.
- If you attend religious services with your friend or family member, stick to a regular weekly schedule. Perhaps you can have coffee or lunch afterward.
- Suggest a weekly card game, movie night, or a show on television or streaming service that you both enjoy.
- Send a “good morning” and “good evening” text or meme.
- Despite living in a digital age, most people enjoy receiving handwritten notes or greeting cards.
If you’re not geographically close to the bereaved, you can still “be there” through Facetime, Zoom, or Skype.
Offer specific ways to help. Saying “let me know if you need anything” puts the burden on the grieving person. Instead, offer clear options or suggestions that you think would be helpful, such as:
- I’d like to bring you dinner tomorrow night. Would you prefer chicken and side dishes or a pasta casserole?
- Would it be alright if I came over later today to tidy up, or could I rake leaves from the front yard?
- I’d be happy to help you answer cards, letters, or emails. How about Tuesday?
Even ‘Strong’ People Need Support
Most of us know someone – it may be you – who is strong and determined in the face of adversity and loss. Yet grief still affects even the most resilient person. Until you are satisfied that your bereaved friend, family member, or neighbor is slowly but surely managing their grief, be there for them.
Suggested Conversation Starters
Finding the right words in the face of someone’s loss is challenging. Someone who is grieving may not seem receptive. Perhaps they’re not accustomed to asking for help. Or maybe they fear being a burden. Try using some of these conversation starters that avoid a one-word yes or no answer.
- Whenever you’d like to talk, I’m here to listen. What’s on your mind now?
- I’m free to talk (or visit) at these times. Which times are good for you?
- How are you taking care of yourself today, physically and emotionally?
- What do you find helps you the most right now?
Use Their Loved One’s Name
Well-meaning individuals avoid saying the deceased person’s name. Yet avoiding their name can make a grieving person feel even more isolated and alone. You can say, “I miss John, too.” Even if hearing their name promotes tears, it’s a more caring and genuine statement than “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Be reassuring: tell them that it may not seem possible now, but they will feel better. If it’s appropriate, share how you dealt with the loss of a loved one. You might say: “I found a way through my grief, and I know you will. You are a strong person, and I am here for you.”
Be Nonjudgmental and Supportive
It is not helpful to tell a grieving person that they should be feeling better already (or by a specific date). Avoid those statements unless your friend talks about their loss as “God’s will” or says, “They’re in a better place.”
Instead, try saying, “I’m here to listen, but if you’re not ready to talk, that’s okay too.” There could be long periods of silence as your friend or family member sorts through their thoughts. Be willing to simply share your friend’s couch, dinner table, or a walk. A sympathetic ear and companionable silence are often precisely what a grieving individual needs.
Respect Their Space
Don’t be irked if a grieving person rebukes your offer of help, company, or conversation. Be honest. Say, “You won’t hurt my feelings if you’d rather be alone.”
However, be mindful of warning signs that your friend or family member could be developing complicated grief, which may lead to a swift physical and mental decline.
There is no timeline for grief. Many people gradually accept the loss of a loved one. They find ways to cope with their new standard of living without their spouse, parent, child, or sibling.
Some people experience such intense grief – and a strong reluctance to accept their loved one’s passing – that it affects their physical and psychological health. They don’t seem to be coping even after many months or a year.
Know these warning signs:
- The irrational belief that they could have prevented their loved one’s demise
- Continued isolation and refusal to join social activities
- Avoids places and activities they enjoyed with their loved one
- They cannot resume everyday routines, such as paying bills or taking care of their health
- Believes that life isn’t worth living without their loved one
Individuals with complicated grief are at greater risk for depression, harmful behaviors (such as drinking and driving), and suicide. Take any threats of self-harm seriously by getting emergency help.
Visit the Mental Health America website for more ideas on helping others (and yourself) during Mental Health Awareness Month.