Helping Others Cope with Grief

Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light. ~Helen Keller

Sometimes our world shifts dramatically without warning, as it did 8 years ago today with the events of 9/11. I wanted to take a moment today to reflect on how we help others when they are coping with grief. Perhaps you know someone who has lost someone who is grieving–if not, you may want to print this out and file it. Grief is an unavoidable part of our life journey, and being able to help and guide one another is one of the best gives we can give.

As friends, relatives or others who care, there is nothing more difficult than watching those we care about endure pain–especially the pain that comes from unexpected tragedy. As a society who is largely untrained in how to help, we may feel confused or unsure of how to best support those we care for. The following guidelines can help you support your loved one during dark times.

Don’t try to find the magic words or formula to eliminate the pain. Nothing can erase or minimize the painful tragedy your friend or loved one is facing. Your primary role at this time is simply to “be there.” Don’t worry about what to say or do, just be a presence that the person can lean on when needed.

Don’t try to minimize or make the person feel better.
When we care about someone, we hate to see them in pain. Often we’ll say things like, “I know how you feel,” or “perhaps, it was for the best,” in order to minimize their hurt. While this can work in some instances, it never works with grief.

Help with responsibilities.
Even though a life has stopped, life doesn’t. One of the best ways to help is to run errands, prepare food, take care of the kids, do laundry and help with the simplest of maintenance.

Don’t expect the person to reach out to you. Many people say, “Call me if there is anything I can do.” At this stage, the person who is grieving will be overwhelmed at the simple thought of picking up a phone. If you are close to this person, simply stop over and begin to help. People need this but don’t think to ask.

Talk through decisions. While working through the grief process many bereaved people report difficulty with decision making. Be a sounding board for your friend or loved one and help them think through decisions.

Don’t be afraid to say the name of the deceased. Those who have lost someone usually speak of them often, and believe it or not, need to hear the deceased’s name and stories. In fact, many grievers welcome this.

Remember that time does not heal all wounds. Your friend or loved one will change because of what has happened. Everyone grieves differently. Some will be “fine” and then experience deep grief a year later, others grieve immediately. There are no timetables, no rules–be patient.

Remind the bereaved to take care of themselves. Eating, resting and self-care are all difficult tasks when besieged by the taxing emotions of grief. You can help by keeping the house stocked with healthy foods that are already prepared or easy-to-prepare. Help with the laundry. Take over some errands so the bereaved can rest. However, do not push the bereaved to do things they may not be ready for. Many grievers say, “I wish they would just follow my lead.” While it may be upsetting to see the bereaved withdrawing from people and activities–it is normal. They will rejoin as they are ready.

Avoid judging. Don’t tell people how to react or handle their emotions. Simply let them know that you will help in any way possible.

Share a Meal. Invite the bereaved over regularly to share a meal or take a meal to their home since mealtimes can be especially lonely. Consider inviting the bereaved out on important dates like the one-month anniversary of the death, the deceased’s birthday, etc.

Make a list of everything that needs to be done with the bereaved. This could include everything from bill paying to plant watering. Prioritize these by importance. Help the bereaved complete as many tasks as possible. If there are many responsibilities, find one or more additional friends to support you.

Make a personal commitment to help the one grieving get through this. After a death, many friendships change or disintegrate. People don’t know how to relate to the one who is grieving, or they get tired of being around someone who is sad. Vow to see your friend or loved one through this, to be an anchor in their darkest hour.

Adapted from I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: surviving, coping and healing after the sudden death of a loved one by Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D. published by Sourcebooks – to learn more about this book, visit


Helping Others Cope with Grief — 2 Comments

  1. Dear Brook,
    On the 8th of January my MOM died of a massive heart attack.She lived in Canada along with my father and minutes away from my eldest sister, my brother and their respective families.I live in Greece with my husband and four children. On that dreadful morning, I received a call from my sister Maria in tears, so overwhelmed with grief and shock she could barely relay the dreadful news of our mother’s passing.
    My husband and I went to Canada for the funeral as did my sister and her husband from Cyprus.
    We all found great comfort being together as a family especially during this difficult time.Our friends and family in Canada were
    very supportive. We couldn’t have asked or hoped for more. They were great!
    In fact, we were quite surprised under very harsh weather conditions,how many people from our community and elsewhere came to pay their respects and condolences at the funeral home and also attended the funeral the next day…not to mention their presence the days prior to and after the funeral.
    In contrast, returning ‘home’ to Greece has been rather lonely and disappointing. My ‘friends’ here, whom not only knew my mom from her annual visits over the 16 years I’ve lived here, but were also guests of hers at her home on weekends 2 hours away from here during the summer months on several occasions, expressed their condolences when they accidentally bumped into me on errands in the village. I’ve been quite disturbed by their ‘non-being there’ in any shape or form. I feel so low right now, I could really use a friend however the only ones I’ve got are all overseas. We keep in touch by phone, emails etc.Never in my wildest dreams would I have pictured me at such a low moment in my life seeking refuge from my pain from someone via a computer or a phone. I’m an affectionate and caring human being always willing to extend a hand…a heart…an ear to someone in need…so why, when I NEED someone the most do I find myself so alone????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Thinking that maybe my expectations were too high….I decided to check out your advice about ‘being there’ for those in grief. Of course..your article reinforced my expectations from my friends…it’s just unfortunate that my ‘friends’ don’t meet them…or don’t care enough to.
    I agree with all the ways you suggested were at least a kind and decent means of support for someone grieving.
    If you have anymore advice to offer…I’m all ears.

  2. Stella: The first thing I read on my computer this morning was your note above. I have been through something similiar and found that my lifelong friends did not know how to react to the situation so they found more comfort in ignoring it and moving on with their lives. I truly found out who my real friends are. If I could offer any advice, it would be to accept the friendship from your friends who are there for you and use their shoulder to cry on or lean on for support. They want to be there for you, therefore you don’t need to feel alone. Seek them out through phone and internet, these true friends will be there for you.
    I am sending you a hug, all the way from Canada,

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