How to support someone who is grieving
Learn the right things to say — and what not to say — when helping a grieving loved one cope with loss
Knowing how to help a loved one living with grief can be distressing. You witness his or her pain day in and day out, which often leaves you wishing for a quick fix. But Carrie Michael, a licensed marriage and family therapist based near Nashville, TN, says the sorrow is necessary.
“Sadness is a way of honoring our losses, and the bigger the loss, the deeper the sadness,” says Michael. “A grieving person will move in and out of the five stages of grief before they feel more anchored in the last stage — acceptance. Yet, what they’re feeling throughout the process is a sign he or she is grieving in a healthy way.”
But everyone will not grieve in the same way, so how you help may differ. Yet, a few grief support methods can help anyone. The following suggestions are meant to help you feel more confident as you try to help your loved one move through the grieving process.
What not to say to someone who is grieving
Michael provides two principles to ensure what we say to the bereaved allows them to grieve in a healthy way. The first is to help them not feel pressured to move past the pain before they’re ready. That means avoiding phrases like, “It’ll be okay” or “You’ll get over it,” or suggesting they grieve in some way other than their own.
The second is to not use statements that may invalidate their pain. For example, Michael advises to stay away from comments that start with “at least,” such as, “At least he’s no longer hurting,” or “At least you had time with her.” She says it may cause the bereaved to repress emotions.
The same harm may happen when you compare a loss you experienced with theirs. Telling people living with grief that you know how they feel or what they’re going through can diminish their feelings. For the same reason, steer clear of condolences that are cliché. These include, “Everything happens for a reason,” “He’s in a better place now,” or “You now have an angel watching over you.”
It may be confusing to read this advice since these condolences are often voiced, but alternatives exist that can better support someone living with grief.
What to say to someone living with grief
The right expressions of sympathy put the focus on your loved one’s emotions. They show your willingness to talk and provide support. Michael suggests using simple phrases, such as, “I’m here for you,” “What do you need?” and “It’s okay to be sad.” The latter statement, she adds, encourages them to work through their feelings naturally, versus trying to push them through the pain. If the grieving person starts to share, remember to listen with compassion and no judgment.
You can also share your stories about the deceased with your loved one. Even though they may incite some sadness, memories can provide comfort and shift the bereaved’s thoughts from how the person died to how they lived.
However, if they don’t wish to reminisce or discuss their feelings, that is okay. Just being there is the most valuable way to help your loved one heal. “Your ongoing and reliable presence is the most important gift you can give,” the Center for Loss and Life Transition says.
When to suggest grief counseling
You may start to worry if your friend or family member grieves for numerous months or years. But watching how they grieve will help you decide whether you should suggest grief counseling. Pay attention to their symptoms, especially those that worsen, as they may signal depression. Look for the following signs that indicate they should seek professional help:
- Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of their own death
- Substance abuse, such as drugs or alcohol
- Constant focus on the loved one’s death
- Overwhelming guilt or feelings of regret
- Disbelief the deceased is really gone
Michael says most counselors can help with grief-related issues, but grief specialists who have completed additional training on the grieving process may be a better fit for certain situations. The good news is grief support is available in more ways than ever — in person, online, and even via text. You can search Psychology Today’s website or The Grief Recovery Institute’s online support to find a resource near you.
If you need to call in help for your grieving loved one, don’t feel like you failed. Michael says these situations are often a result of bottled-up emotions, due to the bereaved not wanting to feel the pain or burden others with their feelings. This shows how complicated the grieving process can be, so don’t be afraid to seek your own support. You may find it in reading grief books or by talking with close friends or family members. Tending to your loved one’s heartache isn’t easy, so remember to take care of yourself, too.
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