How to support a bereaved friend

‘Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Walk beside me, just be my friend

~Albert Camus~

There is not a right or a wrong way to support someone who has been bereaved. Very often people get stuck with not knowing what to do for the best when trying to support their bereaved friend, so they end up doing nothing. Resulting in being silent, withdrawing from their friend, all in a fear of doing something wrong. As Albert Camus said at the end of his quote: ‘Walk beside me, just be my friend’. What he means by saying this is, we don’t have to change anything about our friendship, only perhaps be more aware of the fragility of the other.

The most beautiful act of our love and appreciation of our friendship can be shown through presence. Be there for your friend. Physically or at the other end of a phone or video call. It doesn’t matter how you do it. What is important for your bereaved friend is that you do it. And not just once or twice but be there consistently, unconditionally, with no judgment or expectation.

The absolutely worst thing for a bereaved person to hear is: ‘I thought you’d be over it by now’ or ‘Why is it taking you so long to move on?’. If you said those words to your friend don’t beat yourself up. Perhaps next time you see them, acknowledge your mistake and show your support. Tell them that from now on there’ll be no timeline, no expectation and judgment of how long their healing will take. This is what your friend needs to hear. They will be so thankful to you.

Instead of avoiding the subject of grief and loss when with your friend, you can choose to be an active listener. An active listener is someone who will ask open ended questions to encourage conversation. So instead of asking: ’How are you today?’ which might just lead to a short answer: ‘I am ok, thank you.’ try asking: ‘How have you coped this week?’ which might encourage your friend to say a little bit more. If your friend tells you that they haven’t been coping, ask them how can you help them.

Try and take the conversation further. Show them that you are there to support them no matter what. Also be proactive in helping. Don’t wait for your friend to reach out and ask for help. Asking for help is literally the hardest thing to do when someone is bereaved.

couple on bench

Don’t be afraid to speak about the person that died. If you knew them well, say their name and share your memory of them. This will help your bereaved friend to recognise, that you too are thinking of the deceased and are not afraid to talk about them. You do not need to worry that you will upset your friend by bringing up the subject of their loved one that is no longer with them. They know that their loved one is no longer here and are aware of this every minute of every single day. 

Please try not to say words such as: ‘at least they are in a better place now’, ‘at least they are no longer suffering’, ‘at least you still have your mum/dad’, ‘at least you still have your other children’, ‘at least you know you can get pregnant’. These words will devaluate their loss and grief and may make their pain far worse. Your bereaved friend will feel that their grieving is not acceptable and that they should move on quickly resulting in bottling up their grief instead of dealing with it.

If you have been previously impacted by grief yourself, do not compare your grief to theirs. We are all individuals and grieve individually. When you are supporting your friend, make it all about them, not you. It might be helpful to share tips that helped you on your own grief journey. However, never force ideas on your friend. What was right for you, might not be right for them. Gentle suggestions can go a long way. Let them decide for themselves what they would like to do.

If you see your friend struggling (they might seem depressed, still isolating, being withdrawn) many years after the loss of their loved one maybe gently suggest that further help might be needed. A visit to their GP or seeking counselling to help process those feelings and emotions that are hard to process by yourself might be a good idea.

hand holding flowers

Some people might turn to drugs and/or alcohol to cope with their bereavement. For them it seems that this is the only way they can cope with their grief. Excessive use of drug and/or alcohol helps them to numb/desensitise their feelings. If you see your friend dealing with their grief through drugs and/or alcohol, approach this subject gently and with care. Talk to them about their choices, help them to find support groups, do not criticise their actions.

They need your support, not your judgment. They might know very well that alcohol and/or drugs are not going to take their grief away, but for them, it allows them that little time to forget, not to feel the excruciating everyday pain. Of course, we know that this is far from ideal approach and very harming if continuing for a length of time. Try not to fix your friends approach to grief, this might only awake anger and disappointment in your friend. Instead talk to them, show them that you are there for them no matter what and that you are prepared to support them for as long as they need you. 

Some bereavements are very complex, even traumatic and really do require professional help. When we are trying to support our friend while they are grieving, we have to take this into consideration. The circumstances in which they became bereaved will have a huge impact on them as well as their relationship to their loved one. Don’t tell your friend that they have to move on in order to heal. Such prompts are not helpful and will prevent those who are grieving from healing fully and well. Instead, allow the space and time for your friend’s healing. This will be far more appreciated than being rushed into recovery.

If you have done all you can and have been supporting your friend through grief and he/she is not getting better after many months/years maybe suggest visiting a GP or seeking counselling.

I sincerely hope that you found my article on ‘How to help someone who is bereaved’ helpful. Should you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to email me at: denisa.white@counsellingincrawley.info

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Denisa White FdSc, MBACP, Bereavement Counselling

I am a counsellor who specialises in bereavement therapy, working in Crawley, West Sussex. I help my clients to heal safely without experiencing further trauma that many losses can trigger. Apart from working in my private practice, I work for a local charity helping those who have been bereaved by suicide or clients experiencing suicidal feelings.… Read more

Written by Denisa White FdSc, MBACP, Bereavement Counselling

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