When I was 18, my friend (I’ll call her Caden) lost her most important caregiver – her grandmother. Caden was transformed by grief and I felt helpless. I desperately wanted to provide some solace for her, and yet I said nothing. I felt paralyzed by not knowing how to reach out. Months later, I sobbingly apologized: “I’ve been a bad friend.” She was incredibly gracious, but our friendship was never really the same.
It would be several years before an unexpected source would show me how to support someone through grief.
When I was 21, I had my own first experience of grief. I was out of town at a theatre festival, and I hadn’t checked my voicemail for several days. When I finally listened to my messages from a payphone in downtown Stratford, my mailbox was unexpectedly full. First, I heard vague messages from people expressing that it was “important” that I get back to them. Then there was a message letting me know there was some “news” about my best friend (I’ll call her Leah).
There is no right way to grieve.
The messages gradually became more urgent in tone. The final one delivered gutting news – Leah had died by suicide. Her funeral was that afternoon. As I frantically started planning how to get back, I realized that the final message was left the previous day. I wept wildly and walked aimlessly in the streets of Stratford until a man experiencing homelessness approached me with great concern. He asked, “What’s wrong? What do you need? Do you need money?”
Writing this now, I still tear up. It was so big hearted. This person that I didn’t even know cared about me. I still don’t know anything about that man other than his evident poverty. However, he was able to do for me what I was not able to do for my friend, Caden, when her grandmother died – he offered support.
While these stories are about the death of a person, there are many other sources of grief. The death of a pet, a miscarriage, the loss of a career, or the ending of a relationship are just some examples of losses that everyone experiences over the course of a lifetime.
When someone is grieving, don’t try to “make it better.”
Ultimately, my early struggle to support the people I cared about most led me to complete a master’s degree in counselling psychology. While education has been helpful, showing support is far simpler than I imagined at 18. Here are seven tips to help you support someone through grief:
Support the griever’s experience of belonging. Reach out personally, and also extend invitations to be part of a larger community. Understand that there will be times when the griever will want to be alone or won’t be up to socializing. Continue to reach out and check in over time. Grief can last much longer than we sometimes think.
Avoid conventional questions or sayings.
Be genuine. My clients tell me that they dread being asked “How are you?” because it leads to the obvious answer of “Not good.” It can also force the social convention of saying “Fine,” which can feel alienating. Rather ask, “How are you today?” “How are you in this moment?” or simply say, “Hi.”
Ask rather than guessing or making assumptions.
“Can I help, or do you need space right now?” “Do you feel like talking about the death or would you prefer distraction?” Let the griever know that you’re okay with whatever their answer is. Even asking, “Is it okay if I check in with you again once some time has passed?” can be helpful. Emotions and needs change with time, by the year, month, day, sometimes even by the hour.
Offer practical help.
Often there are practical concerns and needs that can feel unmanageable and overwhelming, particularly after a death. It’s a good idea to offer the griever help with a variety of tasks, ranging from informing people about the death, to looking after their child or pet. Or, offer to help with household duties such as laundry, cleaning, and meal preparation. In many cultures, it is traditional to bring food in order to lighten the load and care for the griever.
Listen and respect the griever’s process.
Avoid being directive, making judgements, or projecting your own ideas about grief onto the grieving person. Any statement that begins with “You need to…” is unlikely to be well received. Rather learn about the source of their grief, and listen with acceptance of where the griever is at without providing advice.
Don’t offer silver linings.
Don’t try to “make it better.” Resist the urge to start any sentence with the words, “At least….” Trust that the person grieving can handle the emotions because people can often sense our beliefs. If we trust that the griever will survive the painful experience, they are more likely to also feel they can handle what has happened.
People grieving often feel alone. Through holding space for whatever emotions come up – including the absence of emotion – we have the capacity to undo feelings of loneliness.
There is no right way to grieve. As humans, our response to loss and the type of support we need fluctuates and varies. This can make it challenging to know how to best support others who are grieving, which is why it’s helpful to examine our own beliefs around loss.
In retrospect, I can see that part of why I found supporting Caden so challenging was my perception that she was experiencing something intolerable. I felt I had to somehow improve the situation, but I couldn’t imagine how. If only I had learned to simply ask, “What do you need?” a little earlier.
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