How to support someone who is grieving

This week is a brief add on to our last blog on sympathy versus empathy, specifically in regard to grief. If you haven’t read the last one, it’s worth checking out too, and not a huge time commitment to go through! For this post, I have a video for you on how to support someone who is grieving. Take 4 minutes and watch the video, and come back!


Image source: video screenshot

Grief is such a complicated experience, and connected to so many types of losses (people, opportunities, physical objects or money, hope, etc). For the person grieving, sometimes it feels like the grief will never pass during the thick of it. For the person trying to comfort someone in grief, it can be easy to step into a place where they are trying to “fix” or silver line the person in grief’s situation. This video says, “You can’t heal somebody’s pain by trying to take it away from them.”, meaning that the tendency to try to fix or silver line grief doesn’t really work.

So what does work? If we can’t help someone grieving by fixing or silver lining, what do we do? Acknowledgement: “It’s way more helpful to join them in their pain, then it is to cheer them up.”But how to we do that? It really is as simple as, “When somebody shares something painful, it’s much more helpful to say, “I’m sorry that’s happening, do you wanna tell me about it?”. To be able to say “this hurts” without being talked out of it, that’s what helps. Being heard helps.”. It may not feel like you are doing a lot, or doing enough, but ends up being much more effective than trying to fix or silver line. Like the Parker Palmer quote from the video says, "The human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed exactly as it is.”. You cannot fix or save someone from grief, and realizing that can be a tough pill to swallow when you want to help someone to feel better, and feel better quickly. Allowing the person in grief to fully feel their grief with your support and company, is a powerful way to be with them while they heal.

There are a few other tips I’ve learned over the years for great ways to support someone in grief:

1. Instead of telling them “Call me if you need anything!”, be the assertive one and reach out first. Instead of offering something, ask them what they need more directly (meals delivered, help with chores etc). Someone in grief may be too emotional to reach out, or may feel like a burden for asking, so it can be helpful to make the first move.

2. Even just sitting with them in silence can be so supportive. They may not want to talk, but they could still want company.

3. Along with talking about their pain, you can also talk to them about the legacy of the person they have lost. What did they gain from that relationship? What are their standout memories?

4. If they seem to have a lot of unresolved feelings towards the person that passed away, you could suggest they write that person a letter to help them process those feelings.

5. Assure them that grief can be a messy ball of emotions (sadness, denial, anger, stress, feeling numb, masking with humor), and healing is not linear. Cycling back and forth between emotions is "normal" for grief. (Normal is in quotes, because what is normal, really?)

6. Look out for substance use. If you think someone may be self-medicating their grief, keep checking on them. Their substance of choice may feel like their lifeline or emotional safety net at the time, so trying to take it from them could end up being counterproductive in terms of them trusting you to help them. Refer back to all the tips and ideas above unless their substance use could be life threatening, then seek medical or treatment center care.

7. Practice your own self care. Caring for other people can be draining if you don’t take care of yourself too.

This one’s a little bit short and sweet, but hopefully helpful in showing that this is not something to overthink. You don’t have to know the right words to say, just be there!