The most fundamental ways to help someone who is grieving are:
- Listen. Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you.
- Have compassion. Give the person who is grieving permission to express their feelings without fear of criticism or judgment. Try to learn and understand. Don’t instruct or set expectations.
- Be there. Your ongoing and reliable presence is the most important gift you can give. While you cannot take the pain away (nor should you try to), you can enter into it by being there for the griever. Remain available in the weeks, months, and years to come.
“Being a real friend to someone who is grieving isn’t easy. But I promise that if you commit to being present to someone in grief, companioning him through what might be his darkest hours, you will be rewarded with the deep satisfaction of having helped a fellow human being heal.
“Thank you for making the world a better place.” — Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Talking to children about a death
Speak to a child gently but also honestly and openly, at their level of developmental understanding. Don’t use euphemisms. Say the words “died” and “dead.” Explain what that means if the child is very young. Talk just a little, then stop. Give the child a chance to process what you have said and to respond. If the child asks questions, answer them honestly. If the child wants to go off and play or is hungry or distracted, understand that this is normal. Children can only absorb difficult conceptual realities in small doses. They are naturally self-absorbed, but this does not mean they do not care or are acting inappropriately. It just means they are being children.
How children grieve differently
Any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn, but their mourning often looks different than ours. Children tend to grieve in small spurts, showing sadness only occasionally. Their grief might show up as physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches. They also use play to express what they’re thinking and feeling. In general, their behaviors are a better indication of their grief than their words. Their age and developmental stage determines how much they truly understand about death. They are prone to magical thinking, believing that thoughts can cause actions and that their fantasies can become real.
Ways to help
When they are grieving, children need to feel safe, loved, cared for, and heard. You can help by being a grown-up in their lives who provides such conditions. Spend time being present to the child. You don’t need to talk about the death often; just be there to observe their behaviors and answer their questions when they are ready to talk. Model your own grief as well. If you feel like crying, cry. As with everything in life, children need us to teach them how to act. Respond gently if the child misbehaves. Remember that the child’s grief will often come out more through behaviors than words.
Article: “Finding the Right Words: Helping Children Cope with Grief”
Read the book: “Healing a Child’s Grieving Heart”
Talking to teens about a death
Be gentle but honest. Talk a little, then wait for the teen’s response and questions. Follow their lead. Try not to get upset if the teen reacts inconsiderately or seems unmoved. Remember that teenagers are still figuring out how to handle challenging social situations in a “grown-up” way. Do model your own grief, though. Cry if you feel like crying. Express your own thoughts and feelings about the death while keeping the conversation focused on the teen. Offer physical comfort if the teen will allow it.
How teens grieve differently
Death for teens is complicated because it falls at a time when they are naturally gaining independence and separating from their parents and family. They still need comfort and companionship through a death, but they might naturally resist the seeming sense of dependence this brings. Teens often turn toward friends, rather than family, for support. But don’t assume they are getting their needs met by friends alone. Also, the teen’s natural egocentrism can cause them to focus on the effect of the death on them and their future. Grieving teens sometimes act out or pull away from school, friends, family, and activities. Minor stresses seemingly unrelated to the death can trigger dramatic overreactions.
Ways to help
Be present to and patient with grieving teens. They may look like grown-ups on the outside, but they are still very much figuring things out on the inside. If you have a good relationship with the teen, try to spend time with them. This may mean “alongside” activities more than face-to-face conversations. Shoot hoops, go out to dinner, watch a movie together, or just be in the same room (or building!) together, available if and when they want to talk. If you observe dangerous behaviors, then it’s time to be calm but confrontive. Remember that grief and loss are probably contributing to any acting out, so try to be understanding even as you set firm limits.
Accommpanying Article: “Helping Teenagers Cope with Grief”
Read the book: “Healing a Teen’s Grieving Heart”
It’s hard to know how to help someone who’s experienced a significant loss. What are you supposed to say? Is there anything you can do? The first principle to keep in mind is that it’s always better to do something than nothing. When they’re unsure, most people do the latter, which doesn’t help at all. Second, try to be a good listener. Show up, be there, and really pay attention to what your friend is telling you. You don’t need to offer advice, and you shouldn’t judge. Instead, listen and empathize. And third, in addition to your physical presence, give practical help. Don’t ask; just do. Bring a meal, mow the lawn, carpool the kids. Yes, you might make a mistake or step on someone’s toes, but it’s better than avoiding your friend. Reach out—often and humbly. Be a compassionate companion on your friend’s journey through grief.
Accompanying Article: “Helping a Friend in Grief”
Read the book: “Healing a Friend’s Grieving Heart”
When your spouse or partner is grieving, it’s natural to want to help. Keep in mind that your job is not to take away your partner’s pain, though. The hurt is natural and necessary. Instead, you can help by listening and simply being present as he encounters his pain. Be empathetic. Try to understand how your spouse is feeling, from his perspective. Also show your support in a variety of ways. Token gifts, quality time spent together, affirming words, taking care of tasks, and physical touch (these are sometimes called the “five love languages”) are all ways to show your support. If you’re grieving the same loss, however, you may be so consumed by your own thoughts and feelings that you’re not in a position to help your spouse. If that’s the case, perhaps you and your partner can turn to other friends, a support group, or a grief counselor for help.
Read the book: “Healing a Spouse’s Grieving Heart”
Grieving parents have a tough road ahead of them. They need all the love and support you can give. While you can’t make their pain go away, you can be there for them. You can be one of the brave, caring people who doesn’t shy away from them, as so many others will do. Offer your practical help when possible. They might need help with groceries, cooking, cleaning, laundry, carpooling, childcare, or other daily tasks. You can also bear witness to their pain. You can watch and listen as they express whatever they are thinking and feeling. This is not easy, but it’s the kind of help they need to begin to process their grief and move toward healing. Refrain from giving advice, judging, or sharing what others in their shoes have done. Instead, simply let them know they are heard and that you care.
Read the book: “Healing a Parent’s Grieving Heart”
Grieving grandparents grieve twice. They grieve for the grandchild who died, and they grieve for their own child, who is grieving the death of a child. If you know a grandparent who is in this situation, they need your caring and support. You see, grieving grandparents are often forgotten. Their grief tends to be overshadowed by the grief of the child’s immediate family, so it’s common for them to suffer in silence. Tell them you care. Reach out to talk and spend time together. When they share any thoughts and feelings about their loss, listen without judging or offering advice. Be an empathetic, compassionate companion during their time of grief.
Accompanying Article: “Helping a Grandparent Who is Grieving”
Read the book: “Healing a Grandparent’s Grieving Heart”
Grief in the workplace can be tricky. Depending on your organization’s culture, it may or may not be appropriate for people to openly cry, share personal stories, or get emotional. Yet death is a natural part of life, just as much as birthdays, holidays, weddings, and other important life transitions we share with each other at work. So when a coworker is grieving, I urge you to be open and supportive. Acknowledge the death as soon as you hear about it. Call or send an email or text right away. Attend the funeral and/or send flowers. When your colleague returns to work, approach her and share your condolences. Schedule lunches together regularly, or offer to meet up for coffee after work. Be someone she knows will listen whenever she wants to talk.
Accompanying Article: “Helping a Grieving Friend in the Workplace”
Read the book: “Healing Grief at Work”