Anyone who’s lost a beloved family member, significant other, or friend is all too familiar with how wrenching—and often never-ending—the grieving process feels. Often, people in mourning are so consumed by their sadness that they lose sight of how to ask for help, or what to ask for. For these individuals’ relatives and friends standing by, wanting to offer assistance but not knowing exactly what the grieving person needs most, this feeling of powerlessness, coupled with seeing their loved one suffer, can be devastating. But the last thing you should do is fade into the background just because your friend hasn’t actively solicited your aid. Instead, consider the following kind gestures.
Before you can lend a hand to a bereaved friend or family member, you’ll need to understand a little bit about the nature of grief itself. First and foremost, know that grieving is an unpredictable process, subject to extreme highs and lows, and each person grieves differently. The best thing you can do is observe your loved one’s particular way of grieving, know that it could change at any time, and accept it for what it is without questioning it—even if that person exhibits volatile behavior from time to time. In addition, allow the person in mourning to grieve as long as he or she needs to—emotional recovery from a death generally takes between eighteen and twenty-four months, but some people need even more time. Pressuring the bereaved person to “get over it” is an insensitive, unproductive approach.
What Can You Do to Help?
Learn to Listen Compassionately
When facing a grieving friend or relative, many people feel pressure to “say the right thing.” But what’s more important than talking is listening to whatever the bereaved person would like to discuss; speaking openly about the person who’s passed away is an important way for the bereaved to keep the memory of his or her loved one alive, and to acknowledge that death is a natural part of life.
If the name of the deceased comes up in conversation, don’t try to change the subject, even if the grieving person becomes agitated or starts to cry; instead, ask questions that invite your friend to explore those feelings, and make it clear that she should feel free to be sad, angry, or confused in your presence. Conversely, if your friend doesn’t seem to want to talk but doesn’t want to be alone, either, don’t force her to speak, but rather offer nonverbal support through hand holding, hugs, and loving eye contact.
You may find that the bereaved needs to rehash the details of how her loved one died over and over; this repetition is a natural part of the healing process. Even if you’ve heard the story numerous times before, you should still be prepared to listen quietly and attentively. This tactic is especially important if you’ve never lost a loved one yourself, since in that case, it’s best not to presume to know what the mourning person is feeling. On the other hand, if you have had a similar experience with loss, sharing your story might prove cathartic.
Pitch In with Daily Tasks
Even in their greatest time of need, many grieving people find it difficult to ask their friends and family members for assistance, as they don’t want to seem like a burden. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer to help with concrete, day-to-day tasks that may seem overwhelming to the bereaved at the moment. Make your overall availability known from the beginning by regularly asking, “Can I bring you anything?” or saying, “Please don’t hesitate to call me if you need something,” and then, even more important, don’t forget to follow up.
Useful ways you can lend a helping hand include:
- Make a casserole or other type of meal and drop it off at the bereaved person’s home.
- Buy a bunch of groceries or offer to run other errands for the person.
- Help take care of funeral arrangements, filling out paperwork, and other organizational projects as needed.
- Clean the person’s house or do his or her laundry.
- Offer to take care of his or her children and/or pets.
- Get the person outdoors on a walk, a picnic, or a bike ride.
Provide Consistent Support in the Long Term
Often, the most difficult time for a grieving person is not immediately after her loved one’s death, but a week or so later, once the funeral has happened, the guests have left, and the flowers and sympathy cards have stopped pouring in. That’s when the bereaved person finds herself with no buffer between herself and the raw emotions she’s feeling. Now is the time when she’ll need her friends and family most, for months—and sometimes even years—to come.
Continue to make yourself available to the person in mourning through regular check-ins by phone or email, by inquiring how she’s doing, and by continuing to recount happy moments involving the deceased. The bereaved’s pain will likely lessen naturally over time, but will ebb and flow and occasionally become acute all over again, particularly on special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays. At such times of the year, try to be especially sensitive to your grieving loved one by sending cards, lending an ear when she needs to vent, and inviting her to celebrations where she’ll be surrounded by caring people.
Be on the Lookout for Depression
Despite the fact that grief has many faces, its most common symptoms generally fade with time—but sometimes they intensify. If, once the typical twenty-four-month mourning window has passed, your bereaved friend seems to not have made any progress toward emotional wellness, or actually seems to be in worse shape than she was when her loved one’s death occurred, she may have entered a clinical depression that requires professional or medical intervention. Warning signs to look out for include difficulty completing daily tasks; unrelenting bitterness; substance abuse; extreme social withdrawal; self-harming or suicidal impulses; and lack of personal hygiene. If your friend displays one or more of these behaviors, encourage her to consult a mental-health expert who can prescribe her antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, if necessary, and to join a support group specializing in grief counseling or look for online groups.
Kindness Is Key
The loss of a loved one brings out all kinds of different emotions in us, and no two people mourn in quite the same way, but no one wants to go through the process alone. When you’re faced with a grieving friend or family member, it’s time to step up to the plate and offer consistent, long-term, nonjudgmental loving-kindness to help him or her get through this difficult time. No matter how uncomfortable death might make you, resist the urge to stand idly by while someone you love suffers. Whether you bake cookies, call every day, or just offer a shoulder to cry on, every little gesture helps.