Someone I know has been bereaved

How can I be helpful?

There’s lots of advice and support available for people who are bereaved, but less around for people close to them who don’t feel confident about how to help. If someone you are close to has been bereaved it is best to avoid assuming you know what would be helpful for them. Instead, try asking them how you can be of help. Here are a few general ‘dos and don’ts’ to think about:

Do

  • Try to be there for the person who is grieving - phone or text, write a letter or an email, call by or arrange to visit.
  • Give what you promise, and avoid promising more than you can give.
  • Accept that everyone grieves in their own way; there is no 'normal' way.
  • Encourage - but don’t press - them to talk.
  • Listen to the person; try to really hear what they are telling you. You don’t need to have an answer, in fact offering answers is likely to be unhelpful.
  • Try to create a safe and supportive environment in which the person can be themselves and show their feelings, rather than having to 'put on a brave face'.
  • Be aware that grieving takes a long time. Often much longer than we expect. Grieving people can sometimes feel 'left behind in the slow lane' by the fast pace of modern life and its expectations.
  • Try to remember to contact the person at potentially difficult times such as special anniversaries and birthdays.
  • Mention useful support agencies if you are concerned, but don’t press this on folk.
  • Offer useful practical help. Make specific rather than generalised offers of help. For example, it's much easier to accept the offer of a prepared meal or for shopping to be picked up, than to know how to respond when someone says 'Just let me know if you need any help', no matter how kindly or generously it is meant.

Don't

  • Don't avoid someone who has been bereaved. It's confusing and can feel hurtful.
  • Don't worry if you don’t know what to say. There are no magic words or easy answers; acknowledging that you don’t know what to say is better than keeping silent or avoiding the subject.
  • Don't use clichés such as 'S/he’s in a better place’; 'You'll get over it; 'Time heals'.
  • Don't tell them it's time to move on, or that they should be over it - how long a person needs to grieve is entirely individual.
  • Don't make comparisons with other bereavements or be tempted to say you know how they feel. You won’t make the grieving person cry by mentioning the dead person unless the tears were there anyway. Don’t let fear hold you back from talking about him or her. Often, someone who is grieving will welcome ongoing chances to talk about their loved one; their death does not mean they are no longer worthy topics of conversation. 
  • Don’t try to stop them crying. Even saying “There, there; don’t cry”, meant supportively, can seem as if you asking them to stop. It’s okay and entirely appropriate for a grieving person to be tearful sometimes; just give them a signal to let them know you are there. It’s also okay if someone doesn’t cry; we all grieve differently.
  • Don't be alarmed if the bereaved person doesn’t want to talk, or seems angry. It doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong.
  • Don't try to fix or solve things. The death of someone we are close to is something we gradually learn to live with, not something that can be 'made better'. Do not say anything that tries to fix the unfixable. It can be a great relief to have a friend who does not try to take the pain away but who simply acknowledges it.

When someone you know is grieving, respect that they are doing so in the best way they can. Even if you do not always understand, their reactions will have reasons. Accept and value that their experience is unique. It cannot be fixed, only lived through and accomodated. If you have help to offer, do so kindly and tentatively. People may not remember exactly what you said or did, but they will remember the way in which you engaged with them.