How to Help Someone Who's Grieving
Updated: May 16
Sometimes grief overwhelms us. And sometimes grief lays quietly dormant until a small bit escapes the hidden parts of our heart. Other times it is a constant numbing in our minds. Whether it is grief over death, over a shattered dream, or over something that used to be a pleasing presence in our lives, grief is a part of us all. And no matter what anyone says, grief doesn’t pass with time. Instead grief changes with time. It becomes less frequent, perhaps. Or less intense. But it never leaves us. People often believe that there is some sort of “grief timetable.” That if they aren’t completely over their grief in a certain amount of time, they must not be healing. This is simply not true. If you are taking steps to move forward in your grief, then you are healing, no matter how long it takes.
For those who are grieving, know that I am with you. I get it. And it is ok. It is ok to cry. It is ok to ask why. It is ok to take your time. What is not ok is to get stuck. Sometimes we get stuck feeling sorry for ourselves and choose to live in that, wallowing in self-pity. Or we get stuck in refusing to process our grief, and avoid it instead. We think, yeah that happened and it really sucked but life goes on, and we shove it all down inside and pretend it doesn’t hurt. Getting stuck is the opposite of healing, and if you find yourself in that place I would encourage you to talk to someone about that, because grief is like a deep wound. If you refuse to acknowledge that you are wounded, your wound will never heal. It will fester and become infected, and could be life-threatening. We need to acknowledge our grief, feel it, and process it. This doesn't mean grief goes away, but it does mean that when it comes up it doesn't completely derail us and debilitate us. If you are wondering how acknowledge and process grief, I’m not going into it here today, but I would love to talk to you about it, and you can contact me through the information at the end of this post.
For those who are not currently grieving, but care about someone who is, you can help with some of these simple tips:
Don’t offer a cliche saying. “Everything has a purpose,” or “They wouldn't want you to be sad,” are completely true phrases, but are completely unhelpful when someone is in the middle of deep hurt.
Don’t say nothing. That sounds weird, but what I mean is, don’t leave the person hurting wondering if there is anyone who cares. While I ask that you don’t offer cliche platitudes, I would ask instead that you speak from the heart. It is 100% ok to say something like, “I don’t understand what you are going through, but I’m here for you if you need to talk.” Or “I care about you and I am so sorry you are going through this.” But only if you mean it.
Be there. Sometimes all a person in grief needs is for someone to say, “I’m here,” and then to actually be there. Show up. Show up at their house with a meal (without being asked to do so!), sit with them at a doctors appointment, whatever they may be needing. Most people in grief will not ask you to be there for them, but being there for them is exactly what they need. (Side note: Many, many kind people will say, “I’m here for you if you need something.” And that is such a huge gesture. However, a grieving person will often feel like a nuisance and will never actually ask you to be there or do something for them. So be there without being asked. It will go a long way.)
Remember them. When someone dies, people are always quick to be at the side of the grieving family. As time passes, life goes on…for everyone else. For the grieving, life does go on, but it also stands still in so many ways. One month anniversaries, one year anniversaries, birthdays, Christmases, etc., without their loved one are hard. Give them a call or send a note letting them know that you haven’t forgotten their pain and are still there if they need you. The same goes for illnesses. An initial diagnosis is recognized, but with time, people forget. That’s just life, and it’s understandable. But you can help those who are grieving by remembering that they haven’t forgotten their loss, and by letting them know you haven't either.
Treat them like a person. Often when something “bad” happens to someone, we tiptoe around them. When someone dies, we don’t know when to start acting “normal” again. My advice, do it as soon as possible. Ask them how they are doing (and listen!), let them know they aren't forgotten, but also invite them to go out for dinner, ask them how their job is going, what their vacation plans are, etc. While we want to make sure we are acknowledging their grief, some of us can’t seem to talk to them about anything other than their grief. But they are still people with lives outside of their grief. People with cancer are still people. They don’t want to talk about cancer constantly. They want to live their life, and for you to acknowledge they have a life outside of cancer. Don’t ignore what is happening, but don’t focus so much on it that you forget that what has happened is not their whole identity.
Listen. Sometimes people just need to talk. And they don’t need you to say anything. They just need to get it out. And you never know when that may happen. It may be 2 years following a loss, and something brings up their grief, and they need to talk about it. Just listen. And if you feel like you need to say something, you can refer back to numbers one and two.
Grief doesn't have to isolate us from those we love, but it often does. If you know someone who is grieving, try some of these tips to connect to them, let them know you care, and help them feel safe to talk about their feelings without fear of being misunderstood or judged.
If you feel like you need further help to care for someone who is grieving, or you yourself are grieving, reach out to a counselor who can help you figure out the places you are stuck and ways to move through them.
Stephanie Davis Hopkins works at Lumen Counseling in Winter Park, FL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org