Grief Support: How to Help After a Loss

When anyone loses a loved one, their whole life changes. And we feel lost too, and wonder: What can we do to help? What can we possibly say or do that will bring some comfort and perhaps ease some of their pain?

And, even if you’ve suffered your own losses, the ones that you are missing are not the one they are missing. The memories you’ve made are different from theirs. The story of your experience is yours and this experience of loss is theirs.

But there are some universal experiences and emotions that can help us in supporting someone through a bereavement. Those of us who’ve been through something similar have learned a little about what to do and say that can actually help someone, and equally the things that really don’t help. However, the main thing to point out is that no matter how difficult it is, it’s so important that you say something.

How to express sympathy when someone dies

Acknowledging someone’s loss is the first step in being supportive and offering comfort. There are so many ways that you can do this, from a card to a phone call to condolence messages via social media. And, if you’re able to be there in person, a simple, heartfelt hug can do an awful lot to make someone feel loved and less alone.

Just be sincere and be yourself, the person who’s grieving will see that. And if you’re concerned that you’ll put your foot in it and say the wrong thing, please try not to worry: It really is much better to reach out with warm words, even when they get muddled, than to not say anything at all.

So, what should you say?
The things we say and don’t say do make a difference. So, if you’re feeling worried or uncomfortable about how to express things, just keep it simple:

Examples:

  • I’m so sorry.
  • I’ve been thinking about you.
  • I’m keeping you and your family close in my heart.
  • Your mum was a really amazing person.
  • He will be so missed.
  • Your dad was a great guy. I thought the world of him.
  • Hope you know how much she was loved, and you are too.

What should you avoid?
Be careful of platitudes—You know, those stock phrases that sound wise but don’t actually help:

Examples:

  • He’s in a better place. This sentiment may seem comforting but the person grieving would just prefer to have their loved one with them.
  • God needed more angels in heaven. Even if the person who’s grieving is spiritual, it’s best to be a little sensitive about sharing your thoughts on God’s plan.
  • The pain will get less over time. There probably will be better days. But when someone we love dies, the grief of that loss lives within us always, even when we’re feeling happy—or perhaps even especially when we’re feeling happy.
  • Everything happens for a reason. Nobody knows why bad things happen, and it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to find meaning directly after an excruciating loss.
  • At least you had many years together. Avoid anything that starts with “At least…”
  • Have you considered grief counselling? People who are grieving just need love. Not advice. However well meant it may be.
  • I know exactly how you feel. You may know how you felt in similar circumstances, but remember, your stories are as different as you are—and it’s not helpful to share them with someone who has just experienced a loss.

Helpful Tip: If you’re not going to be seeing the bereaved immediately, a sympathy card is a great way to offer some comfort from afar. Even if you are able to attend a funeral or celebration of life, a card is a tangible way of showing you care.

What to say on social media after someone’s death

Twenty years or so ago, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But things are different now. Responding online to news of a recent death can be a wonderful gift to the bereaved; it’s immediate and can provide a way to deliver caring messages as events are unfolding.

Do try to use your best judgment when posting a message everyone can see though. If you’re unsure, ask someone else to take a look and confirm your thoughts are okay to post.

What should you say?
Here are a few simple tips for online messages after a loss:

  • Share a special memory of the person—or perhaps express your sadness that you didn’t know them personally. Make sure you don’t share anything that might be embarrassing or uncomfortable for the bereaved to read.
  • Speak directly to the person who has passed on their social media account:
    o   Miss you, Mate.
    o   You’ll always be in our hearts.
    o   We’ll never forget you.
    o   Love you
    o   Or make it more personal: Bet you’re making incredible music up there.
    o   Tell a story or share a memory.
  • Share photos if you have them, especially snapshots family members might not have seen.
  • Offer warm messages of comfort like:
    o   Thinking of you.
    o   I’m so sorry for your loss.
    o   Your brother was obviously special to a lot of people.
    o   Your family means an awful lot to me and I want you to know I care.
    o   You and everyone who loved your uncle are in my thoughts and prayers.
    o   You’ve been such an awesome pet parent. And she was such an awesome furbaby. I’m so sorry for your loss.

What should you avoid
Before you post anything—on your feed, their feed, or that of the person who has passed—make sure that it’s ok for you to do so. Unless you’ve actually been asked to announce the sad news, don’t be the first one to make a public comment. The family could have a lot of difficult calls to make to their wider circle of loved ones before they’re ready to even think about sharing this online.

When you do say something, remember:

  • Don’t make it about you or your feelings. Yes, you’re sad. You might have been crying since you heard the news. BUT right now, it’s the family that needs the most sympathy and empathy at this time.
  • Be aware of the different people who could read your comment: Grandparents. Their vicar or the Funeral Director. (NB: People like this do often view social media posts to get a feel for the person who passed in order to help with funeral tributes etc.) And keep your comments appropriate to this. This might not be the best place for strong language or rude stories.
  • Only post photos they’d be proud of. It’s probably best to avoid images of controversial exes, embarrassing moments, or anything you know they wouldn’t have posted themselves.

How to offer real support to someone who’s grieving

After you’ve sent a card or connected with them some other way, you might be wondering, how else you can help? A death in the family can bring so many different and difficult changes, to everyday routines, financial situations, even living arrangements. There are so many things to deal with, like making funeral arrangements, dealing with wills and insurance and contacting relatives and friends.

The bereaved would probably love your support, but how do you know what you should do? What’s appropriate? How can you be helpful without imposing or getting in the way?

It might seem thoughtful to leave this in their hands by saying something like, “Let me know if you need anything!” or “Call me if I can help!” But directly after a loss, people are often numb and overwhelmed—or are unsure of how to ask for the things they really need.

Make things easier for them by offering to help with specific tasks, and keep on offering too.

What you can do to help after the initial loss
Continue to be there for someone who is grieving by thinking about the kind of person they are, how they live, and what kinds of practical things you could do to help and relieve a little of the stress they may be facing. Make a list of things you know need to be done and offer to deal with some of them. You could offer to:

  • Pick up some shopping for them
  • Run some errands
  • Deliver dinner to their house
  • Take care of kids or pets
  • Take care of the garden
  • Act as a chauffeur for any appointments
  • Help them sort through post
  • Take out and bring in the bins for them on bin day.
  • Help them create a slideshow or display of special photos for the memorial service
  • Address thank-you notes after the funeral

It might be that the bereaved is more of a casual connection than a close friend and this might inhibit your expression of support as you feel it’s not quite your place or you’re not close enough, sometimes though, these more unexpected sources of support are the ones that bring the most light… so reach out!

Here are some ideas for things you could do if you don’t feel that you’re close enough to anticipate their day-to-day needs:

  • Donate or raise money for their loved one’s favourite charity – sponsored walks, runs, cycles, swims, there’s all sorts of ways to do it.
  • Or volunteer with an organisation that was special to their loved one – animal rescue centres, helplines, community groups always appreciate help.
  • Drop round with a bunch of indulgent treats or snacks

How to work out what they really need
So, how else can you find out what the bereaved needs and reach out? Think about what you know of their behaviour and relationships, and be guided by that:

  • Are they an introvert? Do they need their alone time after a long day? Rather than calling or dropping round, why not make up a basket full of comforting bits and bobs, and leave it at their door with a note or send a thoughtful care package by post.
  • Or do they need people around them? Do they find relief in laughter and company? Schedule some time together. A mini mental break from the weight of heartache might be just what they need. But, please remember—this doesn’t mean they won’t be grieving the entire time. Take your cues from them about the conversation: Do they want to be distracted or to tell stories about their loved one?
  • How have they supported others who were having a rough time? Do you know of caring things they’ve done or like to do? If they bake for stressed-out friends, then a good way to show that you’re there for them could be a beautiful box of cupcakes. If they’re the one you call when you’re stranded at the airport, then why not ask for their grocery list and shop for them or have it delivered. If they’re always there for you when you need to rant about your bad day, then make sure you’re available for them, even if you’re busy.

Because we all share, accept and show love differently, and because we also all grieve in our own ways, pay attention to who the person is who is grieving and think about what might make the most positive impact for them.

When to check up on them

Eventually, in the weeks after someone has passed away, their loved ones will begin to try and re-enter their lives, they’ll go back to work, and resume their routines. And this is the time reach out again, with notes, cards, calls, texts, and thoughtful gestures that remind them that you’re thinking of them and they’re not alone.

A few suggestions:

  • Picking up a take-away from their favourite restaurant
  • Giving a gift card for anything they find relaxing: books, movies, spa days, art supplies
  • Creating a personalised memory stone for the garden
  • Making a charitable donation in their loved one’s memory
  • Putting together a playlist of soothing music
  • Delivering a box of fresh-off-the-line doughnuts
  • Sending a bouquet of lovely flowers or creating one from your own garden.

Saying that you care and then actually backing it up and showing that you do can be a real balm for someone immersed in grief. Just do your best and keep being as empathetic and thoughtful as you can be.

And, if you’re feeling uncertain, just think about what would help you, and you shouldn’t go too far wrong. One thing we are sure about? The smallest acts of kindness really can make a huge difference, and no act is truly small when done with love.

Are there really stages of grief?

We should always remember that, because every person is unique, every grief is unique. People react with a myriad of different emotions, feeling several all at once or over time: shock, disbelief, anger, frustration, regret and hopelessness, to name just a few.

Some people might cry continuously while others will withdraw, becoming quiet and difficult to read. Some days someone might seem fine, even happy. Perhaps they’re having a good day, but the grief will still be there. Or perhaps it’s simply easier to try and be strong, because it’s just too difficult to let themselves feel too deeply right now.

Everyone takes their own intimate journey after the death of a loved one, our experiences of loss are all brutally unique, but there is definitely some crossover. Feelings manifest on different timelines, vary in intensity and affect our lives in innumerable different ways, but they are still emotions that are relatable. You might have heard of the Kübler-Ross model of grief stages. We’ve translated it briefly below:

  • Denial: Often the first stage of grief, this state-of-shock phase can bring a lot of initial internal questioning and overwhelming disbelief. But sometimes it can still be incredibly hard to believe someone is gone even years after their death.
  • Anger: This raw and intense part of grief can show up at many different times and in many different ways. From when and how a loved one died to how friends and family deal with the loss to sudden lifestyle shifts caused by the death, anger can flare at all sorts of things.
  • Bargaining: We retrace our steps over and over, analysing all the “what ifs” and personal regrets.
  • Depression: Facing the intense depth of sadness within you after a loss can be terrifying, and the resulting depression can come in waves, or recede and then return like the tides, and sometimes it lasts a lifetime.
  • Acceptance: Accepting the loss of someone we love is not about everything suddenly being fine, and their loss no longer being important, but is about facing this “new normal” as bravely as possible and learning to live with it and in it.
  • Meaning: Perhaps the most bittersweet of all, this stage is where we do our best to honour and remember those who have died but who continue to fill our hearts with memories as we live.

Helpful Tip: Look at a variety of information on loss by grief experts, memoir writers and bloggers who, in sharing their own perspectives, can help prepare you to support a grieving friend or cope with your own grief.

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Sympathy Card - Contemporary Abstract Design
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Sympathy Card - Contemporary Abstract Design
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Sympathy Card - Contemporary Abstract Design
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Sympathy Card - Contemporary Abstract Design
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