How To Help A Grieving Person
At one point in your life, if you're not the one grieving, you'll probably be presented with the role of comforting a friend or a family member that's mourning the death of a loved one. It's going to be tricky: you might feel awkward and feel like your help is of no use. Know this: your concern for this person's wellbeing is noble as not everyone is as compassionate and they are lucky to have you in their life.
A grieving person is hypersensitive; you're dealing with someone who to a certain degree is traumatised and will experience weeks, months, sometimes even years of emotional turbulence. Yes, it's scary and that's why you will need to support them as much as they allow you to. I've written a short guide on how to support a grieving person based on my own experience with grief and helping the people I love cope with it.
Respect the amount of time they need to grieve.
For some people, mourning may last less than 6 months while for others, especially if the bond is deep—like the bond of a mother and her child—they will take years to adjust to the void in their lives. Understand that for them, life will never feel the same again. They may have to readjust their daily routines, their traditions and get used to never seeing and hearing from that one person that is so dear to them. So please, don't tell them to stop grieving or to feel a certain way: this is THEIR grief, not yours.
Avoid asking how they are in the first few weeks/months.
Hello, Captain Obvious: they just lost someone! On a scale of 1-10, they're probably swinging from 1-3. By avoiding this question, you also spare the bereaved from feeling really awkward. One of the most frustrating things for a grieving person is to feel like they've to fake an answer to make others feel comfortable. This question may also evoke a lot of strong emotions.
If you insist on asking them, be sure that they're in the comforts of their home and not at work when you ask them the question. I usually text a grieving friend using this template:
I just wanted to check on you. How has your day/week been? Sending you lots of love.
Note: this kind of messages are ok if you're texting someone very close to you. Chances are, if the bereaved person isn't close to you, they're not going to want to open up to you. Out of consideration, I usually make the text fairly general so that I'm not forcing them to say anything but even a vague message can get the bereaved person to open up to you especially if they're comfortable with you.
Show them that you care.
Grief is a really lonely battle; there were times when I felt like I was slowly losing my sanity. Nothing is more reassuring than being told from someone close to you that they are there if they need anything. Something as simple as sending a text or a card acknowledging that your friend is grieving and that you are there for them, can really mean a lot to the bereaved. Example:
I know that you're going through a very difficult time. I hope you know that I'm here if you ever need me. BIG HUG.
I had friends that randomly sent flowers and cupcakes to my office to cheer me up. Although these were simple gestures, it meant the world to me knowing that someone cared and knew that I was going through a challenging time despite the mask I put on. Which brings me to my next advice:
Don't assume how they are coping by their outward appearance.
There were many times when people pointed out that I was "so strong" and "coping so well" when I really wasn't; it was just a mask I put on to get on with my life. Hearing words like that really puts pressure on the bereaved person to hide their feelings. More than anything else, a person suffering a loss wants their pain to be acknowledged because oftentimes, it feels like the world is moving so fast while they are still trying hard to keep up.
Take the initiative to do something thoughtful.
Whether it's taking them out or checking if they're ok, don't wait for them to hint that they need some comforting. Oftentimes, a grieving person feels like a burden to others and will avoid asking for help so be proactive. Alternatively, you can also ask them: "What can I do to make you feel better today?" Don't worry, your friend isn't going to make an impossible request. Chances are they just want some company over coffee to set aside their sadness for a while.
Don't force them to express their grief.
There will be days they are at loss for words and there will be days when they can go hours describing their grief. Follow their lead; not yours. If they don't feel like talking then let them be.
Physical contact is really comforting.
A big hug is very comforting and best part is: there are no need for words. There were countless of times when my sister didn't know the words to make me feel better but she was never short of hugs. I always received a warm embrace from her when I needed it the most. If the bereaved person is crying, gently stroking their arms can also be as soothing. It's ok not knowing what to say, know that your presence is already much appreciated.
Don't give any instructions or judgments.
I think this is by far the most important rule. When you yourself have not experienced losing someone you love, it's easy to lose patience when months go by and your friend is still mourning their loss. You'll witness major changes in their behaviour and this may not always be convenient for you but this where your sincerity is tested.
Do you want your friend to be better for your sake or theirs? Respect their need to heal in their own time and way. Avoid telling them what to do to make themselves feel better because they're only doing what they've the strength to do each day. Bottom line: offer support, not instructions.