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Beyond Condolences: How to Truly Be There for Someone After a Loss

Grief is an unavoidable part of life, but watching a loved one go through it can leave many of us feeling helpless.

Support Others in Their Grief

Grief is an unavoidable part of life, but watching a loved one go through it can leave many of us feeling helpless. If you've ever wondered how best to show your support or what to say, you're not alone. This how-to guide, grounded in expert advice, will guide you through the delicate process of being there for someone in their time of need.

Step 1: Build a Persistent Support Network

Cheryl Stevenson, MA, LPC, is the lead counselor and owner of Chronos Care Counseling since 2003. A graduate of Columbia College with a Master’s degree from Webster University, Cheryl offers psychotherapy counseling for individuals, couples, and families. Her decades-long career as a licensed mental health counselor constantly brings her face-to-face with people dealing with grief. She encourages people to reach out to bereaved family and friends, even if they don’t know what to say or do: “Support is the main thing. Don’t offer your opinion on the circumstances of their loved one’s death, especially if it was traumatic or violent. Try not to judge when you're with someone who's going through grief like that. Your presence means a whole lot more than words. Be present for them.”

After the initial rush of condolences, there's often a drop in support. This is when your loved one might feel the loneliest. Here are some suggestions for supporting a grieving friend or family member. 

Stay in Touch

Whether it’s a daily text or a weekly video call, ensure your presence is felt. While technology has bridged geographical divides, never underestimate the power of handwritten notes or a simple card to warm someone's heart. If you live close by, call or text first before dropping in. 

Commit to Regular Activities 

If you share a common interest, like a religious service, movie night, or a weekly card game, stick to it. Involving your friend or loved one in regular activities helps provide a routine and distraction.

Be Specific in Offering Help

General statements like "I'm here for you" are comforting, but suggesting tangible ways you can assist can be more effective. It could be bringing over a home-cooked meal or assisting with errands.

Step 2: Initiate Meaningful Conversations

Communication is vital, yet initiating a conversation with a grieving person can feel like walking on eggshells. However, genuine concern and suitable prompts can open the door to healing discussions.

Ask Open-ended Questions

Closed-ended questions often lead to one-word answers. Instead, aim for inquiries that invite sharing:

  • "How did you feel today?" allows them to express their emotions.
  • "What was a moment today that made you think of [Name]?" This acknowledges their loved one and creates a space for cherished memories.
  • "Are there things you've wanted to discuss but haven't had the chance?" This question shows your willingness to listen to whatever they want to share.

Acknowledge Their Loved One

Sometimes, people fear mentioning the deceased by name, believing it will trigger painful reactions. But a grieving person can feel more isolated when you don’t acknowledge their loved one. Someone’s spouse, parent, sibling, child, or friend may be gone, but their memories and impact remain.

  • Say their name: Mentioning the deceased by name avoids making them a taboo topic. Phrases like, “I was remembering when [Name] and I went on that trip...” can bring forth fond memories.
  • Share your memories: If you knew the deceased well, recounting a shared memory or something you admired about them can make the bereaved feel less isolated in their recollections. “Do you remember the time [Name] organized that surprise party for you? It showed how thoughtful they were.”
  • Encourage storytelling: Sometimes, the grieving process benefits from sharing stories. “Would you like to share a favorite story about [Name]? I’d love to hear more about them.”
  • Be mindful of their boundaries: While being there for your loved one is essential, it's equally crucial to recognize when they need space.
  • "If you'd rather not talk about this now, I completely understand. Just know I'm here whenever you're ready." This statement offers support without pressing them to open up.

Step 3: Offer Concrete Help

Grief can make even the simplest tasks seem overwhelming. While emotional support is invaluable, offering specific assistance in day-to-day tasks can significantly ease their burden.

  • Be specific: General offers can place the onus on the grieving person to identify what they need. Instead, put forth precise suggestions.
  • Meals: "I'll be making dinner tomorrow. Would you like a chicken dish or a pasta casserole? Or is there something specific you're craving?"
  • Household chores: "I noticed your lawn could use some tending. How about I come over and mow it this weekend?" or "I'm free on Saturday. Would you like me to help with laundry or any cleaning?"
  • Errands: "I'm headed to the grocery store this afternoon. Can I pick up some essentials for you?" or "Do you have any bills or letters that need to be mailed or sent electronically? I can handle that for you."
  • Childcare or pet care: "I know it's been tough. Would you like me to look after [child's name/pet's name] for a day so you can have some time for yourself?"
  • Follow up. Don't be discouraged if they've declined your offer. Grief can be unpredictable.

Step 4: Be Reassuring and Nonjudgmental

Grief is deeply personal. The most important thing is to be there for your loved one without judgment.

  • Share personal stories: If you've experienced grief, sharing your journey can provide comfort and hope.
  • Avoid specific questions: You do not need to know the details of their loved one’s illness, accident, or cause of death. If they bring it up, listen without offering an opinion.
  • Listen actively: Sometimes, all someone needs is a listening ear. Even if they’re not ready to talk, being there can make all the difference.
  • Toss the calendar: Everyone grieves differently. There is no timetable or schedule for someone to “get over” a loss. 

Step 5: Recognize the Signs of Complicated Grief

It's essential to understand when grief takes a more severe form. People suffering from complicated grief should seek professional help. 

Look out for:

  • A consistent sense of guilt or self-blame
  • A withdrawal from social life
  • Avoidance of activities once enjoyed
  • A feeling that life is now pointless

If you notice these signs and your loved one seems reluctant to seek help, encourage them to do so. And always err on caution: if you fear they will self-harm, get immediate assistance.

Afterall is Here to Support You

Being there for a grieving loved one is a precious gift of your time and love. Having a supportive team of funeral professionals can make life a little easier for you and a bereaved loved one. We invite you to contact a nearby Afterall location for additional support.

To learn specifically about how to console a grieving parent, you can read our article Holding Space: How to Stand Beside a Grieving Parent.