Helping Another in Grief

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When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us,
we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions or cures,
have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. 
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion,
who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement,
who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing,
and face us with the reality of our powerlessness,
that is a friend who cares. 

B Henri J. M. Nouwen


Why is it so hard to be with those who grieve?

If you're like many other good-hearted, well-meaning people, you may find it difficult to be there for someone who is anticipating or coping with the death of a loved one. When you aren't sure what to say or do to support another person, it's natural to feel awkward and uncomfortable.  It's not that you don't care or don't want to be helpful -- it's just that you feel completely helpless in the face of loss, and so does the person you want to help.  You cannot take the mourner's pain away, and you cannot answer the question, "Why?"  You cannot bring back the person who died or restore the health of the person who is dying, and your friend cannot make you feel better by seeming to be helped.  This is especially difficult if you've never been around people in mourning before, or if you've had no prior experience with deep grief in your own life.  Another person's death may remind you of your own past losses, or of those that you also must face one day.  It's hard to confront the fact that at some point death will take your own loved ones, too, and that eventually you also will die.  Feeling awkward and uncomfortable in the face of such realities is understandable.

What are the requirements for helping another in grief? 

You will need sufficient time, patience, perseverance, flexibility, optimism, understanding, warmth, and compassion.  If you think you do not qualify, consider this: You are only human, and those who are struggling in grief need someone who can identify with them, someone who won't judge them, someone as human as they are.  While you may not know what to say, there still is plenty that you can do.  And because you are only human, do only what you can, and let it be enough.  If you're a member of a family in mourning, give yourself permission to not always be there for other family members.  Be good to yourself.  Take a break if and when you need it, and seek some outside social and / or spiritual support, or personal grief counseling.  The best way to take care of another's grief is to take care of your own grief first.

What if the mourner is a child?

Remember that anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.  Do what you can to give a child special attention.  Create quiet time for talking.  Let her know you're sad about the death and would be glad to talk with her about it, if and when she wants to.

What if someone is mourning the loss of a beloved pet?

Acknowledge the person's pain as legitimate and real, no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special family member.  Recognize that only your friend knows the special place in his life and in his heart that was occupied by his animal companion, and only he can measure just how much he has lost.

Does grief differ at certain points along the way?

Understand that grief occurs both in anticipation of and following a loss.  It does not wait for death to happen; it begins as soon as a person becomes aware that death may happen: when a life-threatening illness is diagnosed or a terminal prognosis is given.  It's important to remember that family caregivers (family members, friends, neighbors who provide care to someone who is dying) are in mourning, too, before the death occurs.  They are coping not only with their own feelings of grief and loss, but also with physical and mental fatigue, and often feel overwhelmed with all the financial, legal, medical, and personal responsibilities associated with caregiving.

In the aftermath of the death of a loved one, especially in the beginning, mourners are very susceptible to disappointments and vulnerable to others' insensitivity.  They need emotional support to help alleviate suffering, and help to be in the world in new and different ways.

 When a loved one is dying or has died, if the person left behind is to heal through grief, he must also mourn -- that is, he needs to express his grief (thoughts, feelings) outwardly.  Over the weeks and months following the death, he must accept the harsh reality that someone loved has died and will never physically be present to the mourner again.  Pushing away some of this reality at times is normal; the mourner will embrace it in doses as he or she is ready.  To allow all the pain in all at once is to be overwhelmed.

In general, what is needed from a helper? 

The mourner needs someone who

  • is present

  • offers to be there in a helpful, loving, supportive, respectful, and non-judgmental way

  • can actively show (demonstrate) that s/he cares
  • will bear witness to the struggle

  • is with, and will continue to be with, the mourner

  • will honor the person's unique journey through grief

  • is sensitive to cultural, ethnic, religious, and family traditions

  • aims to help maintain the person's physical health and emotional equilibrium

Suggestions for Helping Another in Grief

Information listed here stems from professional knowledge and skills, insights gained from personal experience with loss, and from all those many others who've faced losses of their own.  If any of these ideas don't fit with a particular culture or tradition, or if they don't seem to suit you or those you're wanting to help, then simply ignore them and go on to others.

First, learn about the grief experience, and let go of some of the harmful myths you may have heard about grief and healing.  Don't assume that the person who seems to be experiencing little pain is "doing well" with grief.  Take some time to review your own personal experiences of death and grief, recalling who died, what was helpful and not helpful to you, and how you felt about it.

Before the Death Has Happened

When the mourner and his family are grieving in response to a serious or life-threatening diagnosis, you can help your friend and his family to:

  • Research the latest developments concerning the illness.

  • List all the medical specialists conducting studies or research on the disease or condition.

  • Locate local support groups related to the illness.

  • Assemble a team of family, friends, clergy, neighbors, colleagues, care providers, and community services.

  • Have emergency phone numbers and important resources readily available (legal, insurance, medical, financial, home repair, etc.).

  • Find sufficient time to attend to personal and spiritual needs (nutrition, exercise, rest, sleep, participating in religious practices or services).

  • Identify what needs to be done, and find help to do it: errands, grocery shopping, household repairs and maintenance, transportation, housecleaning, prescription pick-ups, etc.
  • Follow the lead of the person who is dying, as he experiences this illness in his own unique way, and chooses whether or not to openly discuss his illness and impending death.

Immediately after the Death

  • Acknowledge the loss.  Either in person, by telephone or in writing, let the mourner know who you are, how you became aware of the loss, and that you care.

  • Attend the funeral: Say goodbye to the deceased and demonstrate support for those most impacted by the death.  If possible, attend the visitation, funeral, committal and gathering after.

  • Let the mourner know if you found the ceremony especially meaningful.

  • Assemble a funeral scrapbook for the family, which could include the obituary, funeral program, and room for cards, notes and other mementos.

  • Arrange to have the ceremony video- or audio-taped; offer to review the recording with the mourner at a later time.

  • Offer tangible symbols of support: a phone call, note, letter, dish of comfort food, flowers or a potted plant, a hope-filled book, or a photo frame.

  • Send flowers, a potted plant, hanging basket, bulbs, tree seedling, or perennials to place or plant at the gravesite.

  • Contact the mourner's network of friends and family and help them choose a way to help (e.g., check on the mourner, fix a meal, walk the dog, cut the grass, rake the leaves, etc.).

  • Fix and bring a meal; include non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.

  • Initiate contact; invite the mourner to share what happened, with ample opportunity to tell you the story of the loss.

  • Listen with your heart, with honest concern and curiosity, respectfully and without judging, without criticism, without giving advice, without being the expert with all the answers.

  • Encourage, reflect, respond to and validate feelings, however they are expressed, and hold them in confidence.

  • Be willing to listen to the same story, over and over again if needed, with mouth closed and ears open.

  • Be fully and physically present: Allow sufficient time; listen attentively; don't appear rushed; sit rather than stand; maintain eye contact and an attentive posture with your arms free and uncrossed; match the volume, tone and speed of your voice to the mourner's; let the mourner steer the conversation; nod and affirm.
  • Accept, permit, and be present in times of silence.

  • Permit yourself to cry, too.  Your tears mingled with your friend's convey what words cannot.

  • Understand the uniqueness of grief: Everyone is different, and is shaped by experiences in his or her own life.

  • Be patient; the grief process takes a long time; let the mourner proceed at his or her own pace.

  • Recognize that, although you cannot take the pain away, you can enter into it with your friend; you can remain available long after the death occurs, when the mourner will need you the most.

Over Time

Help the mourner to absorb the reality of the loss and its consequences:

  • Empower him to identify which activities, tasks, and commitments can be given up or set aside for now, so he won't feel so overwhelmed. 

  • Create safe places to mourn that fit her personality; find appropriate forms of expression (talking, writing, making music, etc.).

  • Keep the focus on the mourner's grief, not on your own story of loss.

  • Allow exploration, searching for meaning, and questioning the purpose of life and death, without supplying answers or imposing your own spiritual beliefs.

  • Keep religious beliefs to yourself; let the mourner teach you about his beliefs and honor them.

  • If it fits with your belief, pray for your friend: Place the mourner's name on a prayer list at church or in an online prayer circle.  Bring your friend into your consciousness, think about her and hold her in your heart and soul for a little while each day.

Help the mourner to experience and express the feelings of grief:

  • Spend time together weekly. Commit to contacting your friend: schedule regular, ongoing contact time, and write it down on your calendar or in your day timer.

  • Accept the person as he is, without judgment.

  • Allow for differences in grief: Walk beside the mourner, not behind or in front of her.
  • Accept the ups and downs; tolerate the ambiguities; have faith in the process.

  • Expect a multitude of emotions, which are normal and healthy (including numbness, anger, guilt, fear, confusion, relief, exhaustion)  -- and don't think you need to change them.

  • Expect occasional grief bursts (sudden upsurges of grief); allow the mourner to feel his sorrow.

  • Allow crying in your presence, without offering a tissue or a hug (which may stifle her tears).

  • Offer gentle and appropriate touch, but only if the person wants to be touched or hugged, and make it easy for the mourner to move away if that's what is preferred.

  • Encourage the mourner to take some time off from grieving, to do or think about something else for a while.

  • Bring the gift of music: It soothes the soul, nurtures the spirit, and puts the mourner in touch with feelings both happy and sad.

  • Spend time near the water (a river, a lake, or the ocean) or the sound of water (a fountain); give the mourner a tabletop fountain from a home, patio, or garden store.

  • Gaze at the stars and ponder the universe together, either outside with a telescope at night, or at a planetarium.

Help the mourner adjust to his or her new circumstances:

  • Encourage good self-care: regular medical and dental checkups.

  • Present your friend with certificates for self-indulgent gifts: day spa, massage, facial, manicure, pedicure, facial, haircut, or a shave.

  • Be a stand-in handyperson: Help with daily chores or tasks that once belonged to the person who died.

  • Without offending or shaming the person, look around, and do whatever needs doing: Run errands, get groceries, offer to be a chauffeur for an appointment.

  • Be a stand-in partner for activities formerly enjoyed with the one who died: playing golf, shopping.

  • Rent a movie to watch together or take the mourner to a movie and discuss it together afterward.

  • Mark your calendar to remember those special life event days: the birthday and death day of the person who died; anniversaries and holidays.

  • Encourage the mourner to plan ahead: Making plans in advance of difficult days can alleviate some of the worries.
  • Accompany your friend to the cemetery on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day, Mother's Day, Father's day; bring or help plant flowers at the gravesite.

  • Reach out at holidays: Invite the mourner to share it with you, take a trip with you, or accept a special gift from you.

  • Expect sadness at landmark events and rites of passage (baptisms, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, proms, graduations, weddings, funerals), when the mourner is more acutely aware of the presence of the absence of the deceased.

  • Encourage spending time with children (a school play; a day at the zoo)

  • Consider your friend's interests and talents:

  • Invite her to visit neighborhood shops, restaurants, museums, guided tours, art galleries with you. 

    Join him in a board or card game.

  • Ask her to teach you something (cooking, gardening, sewing, scrapbooking) or sign up for class in something you both want to try.

  • Help him find a social group he might enjoy; offer to join with him or hook him up with a sponsor from the group.

  • Take a drive together to a scenic spot that may encourage conversation.

  • Ease loneliness.  Invite the mourner to your home for dinner, with a game or movie afterward.  Suggest an overnight stay.

  • Invite your friend to exercise with you: walking, biking, swimming, hiking, gardening, or taking a yoga class together. 

  • Encourage doing something daring, wild, and free: river rafting, hang gliding, rock climbing, parasailing, or skydiving.

  • Gently encourage the person gradually to begin socializing, to begin developing a new way of being with other people.  Help to set up safety nets in advance such as length of stay time-limits and arrangements for easy departures (e.g., bringing her own car; sitting near an exit if she wants to leave early, etc.)

  • Honor your friend's old identity (as a spouse, parent, sibling, or child), and notice the new one that is emerging.  Acknowledge the positive changes that you see: someone who is stronger, more caring, more appreciative, more tolerant, less judgmental.

    Remind your friend how much s/he matters to you and how important s/he is to you.

    Help the mourner regain a sense of control and accept his/her own reactions by understanding and normalizing what happens in grief:
  • Find articles and books on grief.  Check the library, local or online book store, Companion Press, Compassion Books, or Centering Corporation; consider journals, workbooks, poetry.

  • Give a gift subscription to a healing magazine (e.g., Grief Digest; Living with Loss) or another periodical you think your friend would like.

  • Help the mourner surf the Internet for helpful grief Web sites, such as

    Consider presenting your friend with a gift subscription to an online e-mail course on grief, such as The First Year of Grief: Help for the Journey

  • Look for workshops on grief, loss, and bereavement open to the public and sponsored by hospice, the Compassionate Friends, AARP, mortuaries, churches and other community organizations.

  • Suggest that your friend might be interested in joining a support group -- but don't insist or push, as he may not be ready.  Contact Hospice of the Valley or your local hospice or funeral home for a support group schedule, and give it to your friend.

  • Encourage your friend to join our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, on the Web at

Help the mourner create a spiritual bond with the deceased loved one that defines the person as gone but still available:

  • Encourage active remembering of the one who died, and commemoration of a life that was lived.

  • Accept as normal and healthy your friend's efforts to maintain connection -- and even communication with -- the person who died.

  • Use the name of the one who died; this helps recall the presence of the one who died and confirms that s/he has not and will not be forgotten.

  • Share your memories of the deceased loved one. 

  • Plan a ceremony of remembrance (light a candle; share memories) or construct a memory book (ask friends to write notes, share photos); make a quilt of the person's clothing.

  • Give a tree as a gift, or organize a tree planting and let your friend pick the spot.

  • Find ways to mention the loved one's name in family rituals, conversations with family and friends, religious services, memorials, and donations to charity.

 Help the mourner to keep hope alive, believing that suffering can be overcome.

  • Be sensitive to the timing of such assurances: avoid offering too much too early, or too little too late.

  • Convey your own hopeful attitude toward life and love.

  • Share some personal experiences that radiate hope, offering what is appropriate for your friend and has been true for you.

  • Remind your friend of his/her strengths, and how s/he has persevered in the past.

  • Give specific feedback about how you see your friend making progress now.

  • Offer encouragement with inspirational cards and other written messages.

  • Share inspirational books, tapes, CDs, videos and DVDs.

  • Find and share articles that apply to your friend's individual situation.

  • Offer to hold your friend's hope yourself, willingly and lovingly, until s/he is ready to hold it again one day.

Join with the mourner in the search for meaning.

Is there any meaning to be found in this loss?  As your friend continues along his grief journey, you can help him discover whatever lessons have been learned or identify what can be learned from this experience.  Together you can talk over some questions that might bring some clarity to what has happened:

  • What is your friend discovering about himself?

  • What qualities did s/he have that were strengthened as a result of this experience?

  • What strengths can s/he identify that were not apparent before?

  • What is becoming of the person your friend used to be?  Who is s/he now?

  • What was important  in your friend's life before this loss, compared to what is important now?

  • How has this experience impacted your friend's values and spiritual beliefs?

  • Does your friend see the world any differently now?

  • What other "big questions" about life and love and loss can you think of to discuss?


Copyright by Martha M. Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC    All rights reserved

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