6 ways to support a friend who is grieving

Supporting a friend who is grieving can be a challenging process. Grief is a deeply personal and unique experience, and your friend may feel quite overwhelmed. It is important to remember it is their grief and you cannot fix their pain and nothing can bring their loved one back. So, the focus is on supporting them and being there for them in this time of need. This resource is intended to help you with that.


The impact of grief

Many people expect a bereaved person to cry a lot. They may or may not and this can be influenced by many factors. Often someone might initially feel numbness and disbelief, anger, guilt, relief, helplessness, increased anxiety and worry about the future. Their emotions might be strong and their mood may change quickly. These are all natural reactions to loss. 

Despite grief being exhausting, someone grieving is likely to have difficulty sleeping and so will become increasingly sleep-deprived. Their eating habits will change, they may overeat or eat less. They may seem absent-minded, distracted, forgetful or unable to concentrate on anything for very long. They may struggle to cope with crowds. The important thing to remember is that everyone grieves differently so it’s helpful to reassure your friend that the way they are reacting is normal. 

Misconceptions about grief

Grieving is a complex and deeply personal process, and it is often surrounded by myths and misconceptions. These myths can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and can hinder the healing process and hurt those who are grieving. 

Some common misconceptions are: 

  • "There is a right way to grieve." There is no one-size-fits-all approach to grieving. People experience and express grief in different ways, and what works for one person may not work for another.
  • "Grief has a fixed timeline." Grief does not have a set schedule or timeline. It is not something that can be 'completed' within a certain period. Some people may continue to grieve for years, and that is entirely normal.
  • "It’s best not to talk about the person who died." Many people who have lost someone close, want to talk about the person. Yes, they may get upset but it helps to talk.
  • "Grief follows a predictable pattern or stages." The idea of linear stages of grief (such as denial, anger, etc) is widely known but we now believe that grief is more fluid, varied and definitely not linear.
  • "Time heals all wounds." While time can help ease the intensity of grief, it does not necessarily heal emotional wounds. Grief may evolve over time but can remain part of a person's life for many years.
  • "Grief is primarily emotional." As noted, grief can affect a person physically, mentally and cognitively as well as emotionally.
  • "Grieving is a sign of weakness." Expressing grief and seeking help during this process is not a sign of weakness. It is a natural and healthy response to losing someone we love.
  • "You should 'move on' or 'get over it'." Grief is not about getting over a loss, but rather finding ways to live with it and adapt to a life without the person that has died.
  • "Keeping busy helps with grief." While distraction and staying busy can provide temporary relief, it is not a long-term solution for processing grief. It's essential to allow yourself to experience and work through your emotions.

Supporting a friend

Here are some ideas to help you support your grieving friend:

1.  Reach out

You may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed or don’t want to bother your friend but don’t avoid them. Send a card or note rather than text or email as it is more personal. Include something you loved or admired about the person who has died or a fond memory you have. Grieving people want their loved ones to be remembered.

If you can, make a short visit. Take them a book or magazine, something that they can distract themselves with when they feel ready. John Wilson’s book, The Plain Guide to Grief, or Sue Morris’s, Overcoming Grief are simple and helpful. 

In the months that follow, check in with them. Grief doesn't end after a few weeks or months although, unfortunately, many people stop calling shortly after the funeral. Continue to reach out and offer your support, send messages or make occasional calls to let them know you're thinking of them. 

Be understanding if they cancel plans or decline social invitations. Grief can feel overwhelming and some people prefer solitude while others want company. Accept their cancellation and say "I’ll ask again in a few weeks" so they can see you understand. 

2.  Listen with empathy

Be there to listen when your friend wants to talk. Encourage (but don’t pressure) them to talk about their loved one and their memories. Share your own memories. Acknowledge their pain and let them know it's OK to cry, be angry, or feel confused. Avoid offering advice or solutions or telling them things will get better. 

Encourage them to go for a walk with you but be understanding if they cancel or can only cope for a short time. Avoid crowds and keep to somewhere quiet. 

Respect their grieving process and avoid judgment: Grief can manifest in various ways, including anger, withdrawal, or erratic behaviour. Try not to judge their reactions or mood swings during this difficult time.

3. Offer specific practical help

Lots of questions can feel overwhelming so anticipate rather than ask. Avoid saying "Let me know if you need any help" or "What can I do?" and instead, offer specific help that you know they will appreciate.

Grieving individuals may struggle with decision-making and daily tasks as well as tasks related to their loss. Offer to assist with shopping, walking the dog, cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn or running errands to ease their burden. If it seems appropriate, offer help with the funeral – they may have no idea about the different things they need to do following a death. You could go online and print things out for them or help them make a list. 

Over time, offer to help when they are ready to clear out clothes or other items that belonged to their loved one, but never push them to do this. It is a deeply personal process and it can take time for someone to feel ready.

4. Think about what you say

Be sensitive with your words. Avoid clichés like "Everything happens for a reason", "They are in a better place" or "At least they didn’t suffer". Such statements are unlikely to be comforting to someone who is grieving. Also, avoid "I know how you feel" and comparisons to your own losses over the years or to this loss. Although there are some similarities, everyone experiences grief differently. 

Be patient and accept that your friend will need time to process their emotions and heal. Avoid telling them to "move on" or "get over it". Grief doesn't have a timeline, and healing happens at its own pace. 

Focus on the day-to-day, don’t push them to plan for the future or make big changes in their life when they might be coping one day at a time. If necessary, help them to prioritise – what needs dealing with now and what can be left until they feel ready? Grief is not linear, a grieving person will have good days and bad days – for weeks, months and even years. 

5. Celebrate their loved one's memory 

Encourage your friend to share stories and memories of the person they've lost. Create a safe and supportive environment for them to remember their loved one.

In the months that follow the death, continue to talk to them about their loved one. Give them space to tell their stories and talk about memories. Many bereaved people fear losing their memories. If your friend worries about this, you might help them to get photographs printed, or start a scrapbook or a bereavement journal.

6. Help them to reconnect

Be aware that significant days will be difficult – e.g. the anniversary of the death, the loved one’s birthday, wedding anniversary, Christmas and Valentine’s Day. These days are particularly difficult the first time around but often for years. Acknowledge these events and the possibility that your friend feels worse for a while as a result. 

Over time, encourage and support your friend in reconnecting with people, hobbies and activities. Help them to manage this so they start small and build up. 

Finally, encourage your friend to seek professional support if you find you are struggling to support them or if they continue to struggle to cope. Offer to help them find a counsellor who specialises in bereavement.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Abergele, Conwy, LL22
Written by Michaela Borg, MBACP, Bereavement and Loss Counsellor - Online/Phone
Abergele, Conwy, LL22

My name is Michaela (she/her) and I specialise in supporting people through bereavement, grief and loss.  Having experienced the traumatic death of someone close to me, I understand that grief can feel life-changing. You may be feeling stuck, like you can’t move forward with your life or...

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