How to help a loved one who is grieving

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The last few months have been an incredibly difficult time for our clients and their loved ones. Funeral services have had to be severely restricted, people have not been able to attend the services of friends and family, or hug those close to them.

Grieving doesn’t end when the funeral is over, and many people are left dealing with their loss at a time when people are naturally keeping their distance , leaving them even more isolated.

As lock down is slowly lifting, it is becoming easier to extend a hand of support to those who have suffered loss over the past couple of months. However, many people still don’t know what to say or do.

We’ve asked some of our families to share their experiences of what really helped, and didn’t help.

Say something

It’s difficult to know what to say, however much you care. People worry they will cause any additional upset or pain . There is very little that you can say that can upset someone more than they are already. However, all our families say the most painful thing is when people say nothing at all.

We are not comfortable talking about death and we can often feel awkward, embarrassed, or fearful. However, it’s important to remember that our discomfort is insignificant compared to the pain of someone who has lost someone close.

“People I had known for years would pretend they hadn’t seen me to avoid me, or hurry past. You could see the panic in their eyes”

Say their name

All too often, people don’t like to talk about someone who has died. More often than not, the opposite is true. The person who has died hasn’t ceased to exist, just because they are no longer here.

“Talking about them didn’t make me suddenly remember they had died, but it showed me that they hadn’t been forgotten”

Tell them you are thinking of them

Often people don’t want to disturb, but these days communication is easier than ever, and you don’t have to see people face to face or even talk to people on the phone. A simple message saying that you are thinking of them, or something funny or thoughtful can make all the difference to someone’s day. You don’t have to say anything profound or useful, but a card or letter, even long after the fact, can mean an awful lot.

This is particularly the case around special dates, anniversaries or milestones. Make a note of them now and remind yourself to get in touch.

How are you?

“It’s the first question everyone asks, but it can be infuriating. The usual response is ‘fine, thank you’ because it’s instinctive, but inside you want to shout ‘terrible, how else do you think I’m feeling!”

Grief puts everything on a difference spectrum, so people aren’t going to be ‘fine’ It’s much better to ask specific questions such as ‘How has your day been?’, ‘what have you been up to?’ which can be glossed over or answered more deeply if needed.

Things will not be back to normal

Sometimes it’s good to do normal things, to have a welcome distraction from the loss. However, some people expect the bereaved get everything back to normal as quickly as possible. It’s natural to want to jolly someone along, or try to do cheer them up. However often these things are exhausting and can make them feel even more isolated. If you are planning something fun, particularly if there is a group of you, make sure you acknowledge that it might be difficult for the person, even if they do come along, and allow them space for that.

Be consistent and persistent

Funerals can be a flurry of activity with lots to do, and lots of people offering help. Grief is with people forever in various forms, and often doesn’t start to kick in for a few weeks or months when the initial feelings of shock, or disbelief have worn off.

As time goes on people back away, and bereaved people can be isolated. People don’t like to intrude so may stay away if they don’t get a response. More likely, it is because the bereaved are overwhelmed, or exhausted so it’s important to keep trying.

‘even achieving the simplest tasks was exhausting, so I had no energy to see people or talk to people, but I was lonely and needed to know they were there’

Regular contact also means you are more likely to judge changes in how they are feeling and offer support. Reassure them that you are there for the long term and won’t expect them to get over it quickly.

Space to listen

The most useful thing to give a grieving person is space to talk, however hard it may be. Sometimes they might want to talk about what happened, sometimes they might want to talk about how they feel now, or remember their loved one. If this is the case, make sure you give them room to do that. Don’t try to change the subject or offer helpful advice, just create space for them to say and feel. Don’t fill silences by just talking about yourself.

Suggesting an activity to do together can be a perfect opportunity. Going for a walk, or a trip to a park – even watching a film together, can provide the space for them to talk about what has happened, but also not to.

Let me know if you need anything

People who are struggling often have no idea what they need, or are reluctant to ask. Offering specific, practical help can be far more useful and appreciated.

Here are some of the useful things our families said people did for them

“A friend dropped lunch at the door. Soup, and bread, and some biscuits – we didn’t even have to think about it”

“Help with the garden. A friend came and tidied our garden for us, but also offered to come back to work on it together”

“Someone offered to come and help sort through my husband’s clothes. I didn’t want to do it alone and they took them away at the end”

“A friend made a cake, every week, for months. It was so lovely to have something good in the house that I didn’t have to make any effort with”

“A neighbour gave us a sunflower in a pot. It gave us enormous pleasure to watch it grow and bloom”

“A friend offered to take my child to the park for the afternoon. She told me with a specific time and plan, and I was very grateful to have some time alone”

“A neighbour knocked on the door and asked if we had anything we needed taking to the tip. We really did!”

Supporting someone through grief is never easy, especially at the moment. However simply showing that “I am here for you” is all that’s needed.