Helping a grieving or mourning friend

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Helping those who are grieving. 

“A dear friend of mine lost her daughter in a car accident and is suffering tremendously because of this loss. She seems depressed. How can I best help her grieve her loss?”

Watch, listen, be present, and respond.   It is extremely important to follow the bereaved person’s lead regarding what they need or what would be helpful.   One of the best ways to pick up on subtle clues regarding what the person needs is to simply listen and be “present” with the person.   For example, early in the bereavement process, the person may simply cry spontaneously, repeatedly during the course of the day.  They may want to be left alone due to their embarrassment.  They may express this by choking back tears, apologizing for crying, make a self-derogatory comment about their crying, etc.   I have experienced more men react this way than women, it seems.  A simple comments such as, “I sense how really difficult this is for your right now”, may help.  You can ask, “would it be best if I gave you some quiet time alone right now and checked back with you later?”   Others may cry spontaneously and prefer it if someone simply just sits with them, as they don’t want to be left alone yet do not seem to want to talk.  Can you simply sit with them, allow the silence?  Again, the key is that it is very important to listen, observe, and try to pick up on cues regarding what the person wants or needs, especially very early in the bereavement process. 

Simply listen if the person wants to talk.  Many bereaved persons eventually want to talk about the death and share their feelings of sadness, or perhaps a sense of guilt.   At these times, you can safely  engage in reflective listening (Google this or look up on Youtube  if you don’t know what it is or how to do it).   Try to avoid offering direct advice or imposing your assumptions.  Early in a person’s bereavement it is probably unhelpful to say such things as:

‘….we knew that she was losing the battle with her cancer’;

 ‘….this is probably for the best’;

‘….at least he didn’t suffer when he died’;

‘….I know it is terrible right now but you will get over it in time’;

‘….we know you did all you could for him before he died’; 

‘….you certainly have nothing to feel guilty about’. 

‘….it is clear that God finally decided to call her home’.  

Trust that you can be present with someone and allow, be comfortable with extended periods of silence, as many times, the bereaved person doesn’t want to talk right away (they may be in shock or denial), but values someone ‘just being there’.   Be prepared to sit in silence with them if this is what they signal, and engage in some reflective listening if they respond well to it.

Offer to help with general activities of daily living.   Bring food, offer to drive the person to appointments e.g., attorney who manages the will, offer to clean up etc.   One key here is that many of the bereaved person’s friends and loved ones are often active and readily helpful immediately after the death and following the funeral.  However, the most important needs of the bereaved person evolve over time, well past the date of the funeral.  Often, weeks and months after the death of a loved one, loneliness and depression can set in and friends, family have gone back to their daily routine.  The person who is suffering bereavement can feel lonely and abandoned during this time and actually need as much if not more support as they did immediately after the death.   Never agree or promise to do something you won’t follow through with, however. 

Reach out to engage the person in activities.   After the rush of the funeral and the logistics of the estate have been managed, reach out to the bereaved person and involve them in activities.  Encourage going on walks, invite them to the gym for a spin or aerobics class, take them to the museum or a movie etc.  If they have a religious affiliation, offer to go with them to any service or support class that the organization might offer.  You want to encourage and coax them to begin engaging in pleasurable activities that can help distract them and move their life toward meaningful engagement.  Don’t push, but rather, encourage, offer, invite, etc. 

Help the person obtain medical or other professional help if  bereavement leads to severe physical or emotional symptoms.    Severe or prolonged bereavement (e.g., more than a year or so) can be associated with severe depression or anxiety, debilitating social isolation and health problems (attention/concentration impairment, severe sleep problems, problems associated with dietary deficiencies).  Bereaved individuals may be very reluctant to seek the help of a medical or behavioral health professional.  However, a good ‘lead in’ to talking to a person about obtaining help is to attentively listen to reports about functional or health complaints e.g., ‘….I’m still struggling with low energy these days’; or, ‘….my insomnia has been pretty bad’.    Identify 1-2 specific specialists via online searches e.g., clinical health psychologist who showcase specific services e.g., sleep.  Then, let the bereaved person know that you happen to ‘know of’ a specific provider or two who happens to specialize in the area of concern they have mention.  Provide the contact information, and/or offer to attend the initial appointment with the person.   This can often be a pathway to helping the person with their other bereavement problems e.g., depression, anxiety attacks, etc. 

Help the bereaved person memorialize their lost loved one.   Often helpful to many persons struggling with bereavement is identifying ways of keeping the deceased loved one’s memory ‘alive’ in the world.  This can be helping them add to their social media page, converting it to a static page containing key life accomplishments of the deceased person.  It can involve helping setting up a scholarship fund in the person’s name or directing donations in a persons’ name to a research organization that studies the particular disease that caused the death.  Some bereaved individuals are helped when a close friend or relative helps them organize cherished photographs, or creates a memorial photo book of the loved one’s life.   Bereaved persons are nearly always concerned that their loved one will be simply forgotten too soon, and the above activities can help.

Copyright 2019  David M. Stein, Ph.D.  Readers are welcome to link to this article.   Copying this article without the written permission of the author is not permitted.  Copying the article and presenting it on another website without appropriately crediting the present author and linking to this website is considered plagiarism.  This action will be reported to state or provincial licensing boards as an ethics violation.