“Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”
– Joan Didion, after the sudden death of her husband
In a previous article, we highlighted the nature of grief: how it is uniquely personal and presents itself differently in various seasons of life and circumstances. Read it here!
But for this discussion, we will focus on those who are comforting and supporting someone in grief.
It can be incredibly difficult to know how to respond to someone who is grieving. Many people find themselves stumbling for words, completely unsure of what to say.
It is almost like we suddenly lose all social faculties when interacting with someone in grief. Maybe it is an understandable fear of further wounding someone with careless words, or maybe it is simple naivete. But most of us stumble through conversation, shuffle our feet, and even sometimes treat our friend as a new stranger—as if their grief experience transformed them into a person unrecognizable altogether.
What do I say or not say?
What do I do? How can I make it better?
Sometimes, a person’s grief might not even look like grief at all. What then?
Thankfully there are a growing number of resources available on supporting someone through grief (see the end of our the previous article for a list of local resources).
And while there may not be a “one size fits all method” for having a conversation with someone grieving, there are still plenty of basic tips that grief support professionals agree are important to keep in mind.
How to support a grieving friend:
What do I say or not say?
Know that nothing you can ever say will heal a person’s grief. Grief is not something to be fixed or to be cured. Instead, the person grieving needs support and space to experience grief in the way that best allows them to do so. Words should convey this support and understanding that you respect a person’s unique grief journey.
The following links have some fantastic ideas for how to use your words carefully and intentionally. I would suggest becoming familiar with them to see what feels natural to you for who you are as a friend and a support. I do caution against finding something to say “just to say it.” Most people can sense if you are simply speaking in platitudes or speaking with genuine care and concern.
Remember that you are not in charge of “fixing” someone’s grief.
It may seem like I am repeating myself here, but this point is important enough that it cannot be overstated.
I think it is natural for any of us to feel as though we must rescue the people we care about from their strong emotional experiences. In fact, it is one of the first impulses to overcome when becoming a therapist; in graduate school, we actually practice allowing someone to sit in their emotions that they have been avoiding or ignoring to then be able to help them heal through them.
So I get it; watching someone we care about experience emotional pain may be difficult. Remember that you can journey alongside them, but you cannot remove it from them.
This mindset will assist you in finding a needed balance of “present but not pestering.”
Hold space for “griefbursts.”
“Griefbursts” are one of my favorite things that the GriefWorks (at ChristianWorks) program discusses with children and adults alike. They can be defined as sudden “bursts” of emotion related to grief.
Griefbursts can look different for everyone, but a common marker is that they are surprising both for the person who experiences them and the people around them.
For a child, griefbursts can look to unexpecting adults like misbehavior, disregulation, or rowdiness. Meanwhile, adults may find themselves taken aback at how quickly a griefburst derails a regular workday or what they expected to be an uneventful visit to the grocery store.
Grieving individuals need reminders that griefbursts are normal and expected.
Be a comfortable and confiding presence.
Your words and actions as a support to someone grieving should denote that you are open to listening when they need to chat and being silent when they need silence. Follow their lead.
Never create a scenario in which a person who is grieving feels the need to comfort you. Their time to share about their grief and loss, however detailed they choose, is about them. If you over-emote all over the place after hearing their experience, then they may feel like you are not someone who is willing or able to “handle” hearing about their grief. If they end up using their emotional energy comforting you, then they may not find much of their own relief from the situation.
In cases of death, do not avoid talking about the person who died. Most people who are grieving the death of someone they cared about want to hear others say the person’s name or talk about memories they have. It can be lonely if everyone around them is too fearful to bring the person up in conversation. If you clam up and act uncomfortable anytime they say the person’s name or something about them, your grieving friend may internalize that you are not the place they feel safe talking about their grief.
Finally, remind yourself to just be normal! Do not badger someone for grief journey updates or make your whole relationship with them about their state of grief.
I love the tip from Dallas Grief Counseling to say “I am thinking about you today. No response needed, I just wanted you to know” .
Offer practical, tangible help.
“Let me know if you need anything” means very little to a person in grief. Offer tangible help that maybe they did not even consider they could need. Sometimes a person in grief may experience a mental fog that keeps them from taking care of basic needs such as remembering to eat. Meet these needs when you see them.
– I would like to watch your kids for you one afternoon so you can take a break to do something for yourself. Is next Thursday good?
– I hired someone to clean your house while you are at work. What day can they come?
– Here are your belongings you left at work when you got the news. I will set them in your home office for when you are ready to see them.
– I noticed you have been receiving a lot of visitors all morning. How about I make you a plate of food?
Do not rush someone’s process.
Grief does not have a specific timeline. It is highly insensitive to suggest someone should be “over” their grief by a certain point. Check out our previous post about grief to learn more about this!
Do not over-relate your own experience to theirs.
Since we all grieve in different ways, it is important not to hijack someone’s discussion about their grief experience by talking too much or too long about your own. While you may notice some similarities between the two of you, remember that they came to you for support for what they are going through. This is not the time to share your entire grief story unless asked.
Remember that grief comes in all shapes and sizes, and is not just related to death
Grief is most often discussed as the loss of another person to death. However, loss occurs quite often in life in other scenarios. We do not always even recognize what we are feeling to be grief.
Below are a few definitions of some different types of grief.
Different subsets of grief and examples
Disenfranchised grief—an experience in which the people around a person may not feel that the grief response is legitimate or warranted. Someone may be deemed “dramatic” for experiencing a certain level of grief.
Complicated grief—Complicated Bereavement Disorder is actually a diagnosable mental health disorder and is marked by persistent grief that does not appear to alleviate over a certain amount of time. People who suffer from this may feel stuck in a state of loss and unable to move forward.
(Please seek professional help if you believe that you are experiencing this type of grief).
Complex grief—mixed feelings about the person or thing that they are grieving. Maybe an adult child of an alcoholic father is grieving the father’s death, while still carrying wounds from his harmful patterns of behavior.
ambiguous grief—ambiguous grief refers to the loss of something that is not fully “gone.” The best example of ambiguous grief I can give is of a birth mother who is grieving the loss of her child (as well as her role of active parent) after choosing an adoption plan for her infant.
(check out our AdoptionWorks webpage for more information on birth parents and the adoption journey)
anticipatory grief—preparing for a grief that has not happened yet. This could apply to loving someone with a terminal illness, or experiencing the pending divorce of a parent, or preparing for the end of a season of life, like when graduating college.
collective grief—a group of people grieving the same loss, such as a national tragedy or natural disaster.
Secondary grief—experiencing the loss of something directly related to a primary loss. For example, the loss of a job may also come with the loss of relationships associated with that job.
1. Anticipatory grief. Grief Journey. (2020, October 22). Retrieved November 19, 2022, from https://griefjourney.com/article-library/anticipatory-grief/%C2%A0
2. Bowman, C. R. (n.d.). What to say to someone who is grieving. Grief and Loss Center. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://mygriefandloss.org/what-to-say-to-someone-grieving
3. Feder, T. (2022). Dancing at the pity party: A dead mom graphic memoir. Dial Books.
4. Kelly, L. (2021, September 23). 16 different types of grief. Talkspace. Retrieved November 19, 2022, from https://www.talkspace.com/blog/types-of-grief/%C2%A0
5. Moberly, N. (2022, January 28). 12 types of grief you may not know about. 12 Types of Grief You May Not Know About. Retrieved November 19, 2022, from https://www.betterup.com/blog/types-of-grief
6. West, L. (2022, October 2). Grief counseling dallas: Grief: Dealing with grief. DGC. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://www.dallasgriefcounseling.com/
7. Williams, L. (n.d.). What not to say to someone who’s grieving. Grief and Loss Center. Retrieved November 20, 2022, from https://mygriefandloss.org/what-not-to-say-to-someone-whos-grieving