5 Ways to Support Someone Who's Grieving

Posted by Matt Johnston, Pastoral Care Pastor, on Apr 15, 2021

5 Ways to Support Someone Who's Grieving

The death of a loved one is a painful reality we all face, but the caring presence of friends during times of loss can make a huge difference in the grieving process. While many of us desire to be “that friend” who shows up, shares wise counsel, or simply offers a shoulder to cry on, our fear of not doing it right can get in the way.

The truth is, we won’t always get it just right. But don’t let that discourage you from being present for others in a beautiful, powerful way. Learn how to avoid five common mistakes in grief care while finding better ways to support a grieving friend, below.

Mistake #1: Ignoring their grief

We might think our role is to help our friend feel “normal” after they’ve lost a loved one. We may talk about ourselves during a call or visit, hoping it will lighten the mood or distract from the proverbial elephant in the room. Or maybe we understand the value of verbally processing grief but would rather they bring it up first, so they aren’t feeling rushed or pressured. The problem is that this approach puts a high burden on the bereaved to initiate while they are hurting. It also puts us in a position of merely reacting instead of proactively showing care.

Better approach: Gently acknowledging their grief

Speaking with a friend after a loss is a chance to acknowledge their grief, head-on—especially if they are a close friend. Engage by saying something like, “This has got to be so hard for you. Help me understand what it’s like for you.” Invite them to talk about their experience. They may not choose to take you up on your offer yet, but you have demonstrated that you’re comfortable with their pain.

Mistake #2: Saying the “right” thing

Some of us (myself included) can fall into the trap of wanting to be biblically correct instead of just sitting in the grief with a friend. We might say something like, “He/She is in a better place” or “God will use this for His glory.” Though true, these comments risk diminishing or invalidating the pain of loss our friend is experiencing. In other words, you might inadvertently be saying, “Don’t feel sad. They’re in heaven; God is happy about it and you should be, too.”

Better approach: Asking about needs, or simply listening

Instead, acknowledge that you’re not sure what to say, or ask whether there is something that has given them comfort or perspective in their grief. You can also ask if they have specific needs (for example, help around the house, or another check-in after a few days). Or just give them an opportunity share their feelings, and then validate what they share. This approach will show that your main goal is to be there for them—not to teach a Bible study.

Mistake #3: Expecting a quick return to normal

As we interact with a grieving friend, we can feel uncomfortable with their discomfort. Depending on our own emotional health or comfort with feelings, we may even try to rush our friend back to “normality.” We may grow impatient or tired of the tears, the awkward tension, or the conversations that revolve around the same thing.

Better approach: Allowing time for grief, and assisting with difficult things when possible

No matter how much we want our friend to feel better, we can’t expect a quick return to normal. Grief is non-linear and takes varying amounts of time for everyone. Crying spells a month after a loved one died are not an indication that something is wrong. Your friend might struggle to run errands or do chores around the house quickly (or at all), so offer to help out rather than pushing them to fight through grief for something like grabbing a gallon of milk from the store.

Mistake #4: Making too many concessions

Ironically, we can misstep in the other direction by enabling our friend to avoid or numb the hard work of grief. Our friend may be comfortable living in “sackcloth and ashes” indefinitely, and in our efforts to accommodate their feelings or new stage of life, we make it easy to stay stuck in grief. Some behaviors that are acceptable in the early stages of grief will not be healthy several months after the fact. Your friend might be avoiding an activity or errand that they used to enjoy doing with their loved one, because it brings up too many memories. “Filling the gap” for them might help at first, but eventually a functioning adult will have to resume responsibilities (for example, buying their own clothes or putting away their own dishes).

Better approach: Supporting growth and progress

If you feel this threshold has been crossed, find a good time to say something like, “This loss has been incredibly difficult. I’m honored to be helping like this, but I’m not sure it’s healthy or best for me to keep doing these things for you. Can we talk about what you need so that you feel comfortable doing these things again, yourself?”

Mistake #5: Enabling denial

Your friend may have lost their loved one after a “long goodbye” and doesn’t feel there is anything left to grieve, especially if they acted as a caregiver before the loss. While this sentiment has some validity, we shouldn’t assume there is no more grieving to be done or “no more tears to be cried.” Prolonged efforts to deny grief will be ultimately be counterproductive. This is different from a person experiencing the Denial Stage of Grief, which is more about denying that the person is actually gone. A person denying grief is rejecting their own need to mourn.

Better approach: Encouraging honesty about the reality of grief

The best thing you can do for a friend in this position is to first validate the grieving that took place before their loved one’s passing, and then acknowledge that life still looks different now, in the absence of their loved one. Careful questions about difficulty with tasks or visiting certain places, or a perceived change in other relationships, may help reveal there is grieving yet to be done.

Being present for a friend in the midst of grief is sacred and important work. However, we shouldn’t be the sole provider of care in these situations. Encourage your friend to seek grief counseling or join a care group like GriefShare. These resources can do the heavy lifting of guiding someone through their grief, allowing you to focus on simply showing up as a caring friend.

For information about GriefShare and other care resources, visit our Care page.

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