In Sympathy: How to Help a Grieving Friend

Monday, June, 06, 2011

When someone close to you experiences a loss, it’s difficult to know the best way show your care and concern. In these situations, it’s common to feel helpless to make your friend feel better, uncertain of what you can do to help or afraid of being intrusive.

Especially if you have never personally experienced the death of a loved one, it can be hard to fully grasp the intensity of the emotions your friend may be coping with. To make matters more complex, your friend may feel and act differently from one day to the next, as grief can bring on a wave of different emotions. 

Your comfort and companionship are critically important in the days, weeks and months following a loss.

The key is to remember that although there’s nothing you can do to lessen the pain of the loss, your comfort and companionship will be critically important to your friend in the days, weeks and months that follow.

Here are some ways you can provide much-needed support to your friend as they cope with the loss of their loved one.

Reach out.

Make contact with your friend as soon as possible after the loss occurs, either by calling, visiting or even sending a card or flowers.

It’s also important to attend the funeral service if you are able. This will be a difficult event for your friend, and it’s important for them to be surrounded by familiar, caring faces. 

It can be hard to find the right words in the immediate wake of a loss. At times like these, a simple, genuine expression of your concern is best. For example, you might say, “I’m so sorry to hear that James has died,” or “Jane had such a vibrant spirit. We will all miss her very much.”

It’s okay, too, just to be honest about how you feel: “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care and I am thinking of you.” 


One of the best ways you can support your friend is to listen to them.

Make sure you listen attentively and without judgment. Simply ask how they feel and accept and acknowledge their response. Let them know that it’s okay to cry or to vent their anger, if they need to, but don’t try to force them to talk if they’re not ready.

Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve and that everyone experiences grief differently. Be prepared that the emotions that your friend may express – whether sadness, anger, despair, fear, guilt or regret – may be extreme at times. Never take these types of reactions personally.

You might feel as if you should offer answers or advice, but actually, it’s best to refrain. There is nothing you can say to make them feel better about their loss, and every person has to process grief in their own way.

Similarly, it can be instinctual to express empathy by sharing your own experience with grief. However, be sure to do so cautiously. If your friend feels that you are comparing your situation to their own, it can be upsetting.

As you talk, be very careful never to minimize the loss or to offer unsolicited advice about how or when to move on. While saying something like “He’s in a better place now” or “You’ll find someone else,” might seem like hopeful or encouraging statements to you, to a grieving person, these can do more harm than good.

If there are periods of silence during the conversation, that’s okay, too. While it might feel awkward to you, sometimes your presence itself is what they need most. If you feel comfortable doing so, taking your friend’s hand, making eye contact or offering a hug can be good ways to provide non-verbal support.

Offer assistance.

Volunteer to help with specific tasks and responsibilities.

Take the initiative to help your friend with the practical matters of day-to-day life that must continue on even as they are struggling to cope with their grief.

There are many ways you can provide assistance, both in the first days after the loss occurs and in the weeks that follow. These include:

•  Making funeral arrangements
•  Staying at your friend’s house to answer phone calls and receive guests
•  Driving out-of-town guests to and from the airport or helping them find accommodations
•  Bringing over prepared meals that can be easily reheated
•  Keeping a list of those who have sent food or flowers so your friend can send thank-you notes later
•  Planning special activities for children in the family so they don’t feel overlooked
•  Doing yard work or housework
•  Running errands or making shopping trips
•  Picking up children from school
•  Feeding and walking pets
•  Accompanying your friend to a bereavement support group meeting 

    Don’t simply say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” No matter how genuine your offer might be, the bereaved person may be too overwhelmed to know what to ask for, or they might be hesitant to make a specific request for fear of being a burden. 

    Instead, reach out and make specific suggestions, framing your offer in a way that reassures your friend that they are not imposing on you. For example, you might say, “I’m going to the grocery store this afternoon. Can I pick up a few things for you?” or “I just made a big pot of spaghetti. Can I stop by and bring you some?”

    Provide ongoing support.

    Remember that your friend will continue to grieve for months or even years after the funeral is over and that their sadness may never go away completely. Be sure to check in, drop by or call periodically so that they know you are thinking of them and are concerned for their well-being.

    Don’t be fooled by outward appearances. Even if your friend seems to have resumed their normal routines and activities, they may still need your support from time to time. 

    Also, avoid making comments like, “You’re doing so well” or “You’re so strong.” While your intentions might be to encourage your friend, you might instead inadvertently make them feel like they need to hide their true feelings or put on a brave face in front of you.

    If your friend brings up the deceased in conversation, don’t feel the need to redirect them to another topic. Reminiscing can be a healthy way to process grief. In fact, sharing your own memories of the deceased can be very comforting to your friend, as it provides reassurance that their loved one hasn’t been forgotten. 

    Keep in mind that birthdays, anniversaries and holidays can bring up a wellspring of emotions, including intensified feelings of loneliness, so your friend may need extra support at these times. If they’re open to the idea, you might be able to help them develop new traditions to honor the deceased on these special occasions. These types of remembrance rituals can provide a healthy outlet for your friend to celebrate the times they shared with their loved one while remaining focused on living in the present.

    Be aware of signs of trouble. 

    Everyone heals on their own timetable. However, if your friend’s feelings of sadness or loneliness do not gradually start to lessen – or if they intensify as time passes – it could be an indication of a deeper problem. Prolonged or complicated grief can lead to an increased risk of clinical depression, post-traumatic stress and even suicidal thoughts.

    Seek professional help if your friend shows signs of prolonged or complicated grief.

    Be attentive to your friend and watch for warning signs of complicated grief or depression. These can include an inability to function in or enjoy daily life, extreme bitterness or anger, inattention to personal hygiene, substance abuse, withdrawal, unrelenting feelings of hopelessness and an unhealthy focus on death and loss. 

    If you notice any of these red flags, approach your friend with care and compassion. Don’t be confrontational or accusatory but rather present your concerns in terms of your own feelings. For example, you might say, “I’m worried that you don’t seem to be eating much lately. Have you thought about getting help?” 

    It’s also wise to consult with a professional bereavement counselor, who can provide sound expert advice on how best to assist your friend in getting the help and support they need.

    We’re here to help.

    The chaplains, counselors, social workers and volunteers of Hospice & Palliative Care of Iredell County are here to provide support, compassion and reassurance to those who have experienced the loss of a loved one. 

    Our ongoing grief and loss support groups are open to all in our community at no cost. We also offer specialized one-on-one counseling, support groups and other activities to help children and adolescents understand and cope with feelings of grief. For more information or to register for any of these groups, please contact Randy Berryhill at 704-873-4719, ext. 4353.


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