There is no right thing to say to someone who is grieving the death of a loved one, as nothing we say can fully heal their pain.
But that does not mean there is nothing we should say, and it certainly does not mean there is nothing we should do. We may not be able heal their pain, but through the support of our words and actions we can recognize their suffering and also help them withstand the burden they are carrying.
Until the recent loss of my younger brother, I had really only experienced death through the loss of older relatives and family friends, or through the lens of other people’s grief. While I certainly felt sadness, none of those losses resulted in me truly experiencing the grieving process, though I did research it so I could learn how to be a better support.
The experience of losing my brother has completely changed my life into two parts: life before his death, and life after his death. As I continue to navigate life after his death, I notice many things people in my life have done, or continue to do, to support me, even in small ways.
Here are six suggestions of ways you can support your grieving loved one through their loss, some of which are most useful immediately after the death of their loved ones, and others which serve as continued support:
1) Providing Foodstuff.
Keeping our bodies nourished is an important part of giving ourselves the strength we need for the grieving process. That is why it is common for family, friends, and neighbors to help out in this way. I lost five pounds the week of my brother’s death; my husband had to essentially force feed me protein shakes and water.
The idea of food sickened me, and it took a long time to either feel like eating, or to remember to eat. My loved ones helped by bringing food over, made me and my family our favorite snacks or treats, or offered to pick up groceries for me. Others took me out for a meal, and one friend from out of town even thought to call a vegetarian restaurant near my home and purchase a certificate for me to use there.
If we don’t live near our loved one or are unable to bring, send, or make something, we could research grocery delivery services, meal delivery services, or get in contact with someone near them to coordinate efforts. These are all examples of how you can help ensure your loved ones have the energy they will need to confront their loss—whether you are located in the same area or not.
2) Being Useful:
When we are dealing with loss, it is hard to think of anything else, and every extra thing we need to do feels overwhelming. At this time, we can support others in grief by doing practical things that can help lighten their load.
A close friend of mine who works in web design and ecommerce designed the handouts for my brother’s funeral. This was a huge help at a painful and confusing time, and made the handouts even more beautiful and personal for my family.
A relative came to my mom’s home and helped her with household chores, picking out clothing for the funeral, and also with the nightmarish paperwork. Others stepped in to look after my parent’s dog and home while they were out of town.
At this time, reaching out to offer help with pet-sitting, baby-sitting, or perhaps helping with yard work or chores may be hugely helpful. It is best to be creative with suggesting things we can help with, rather then simply saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” Why? Because someone who is grieving will rarely notice ways we could help, and many would never actually reach out to ask our help.
*One word of advice I have heard is that it is best to ask before helping a grieving loved one with a chore, to avoid accidentally getting rid of something that they are not ready to get rid of.
3) Talking (or Not):
In honestly trying to express our condolences in any way we can, a hug, a couple words, we honor the place in our loved one that is hurting. There is never anything to say that will heal their pain, but to not even attempt to recognize their pain in some way even once is by far the greatest disservice we could render to someone in grief.
For me personally, talking about my brother’s loss helped me to move through the fog of disbelief and denial, to process what I had seen and the feelings I experienced, and also, as time goes on, it helps me to keep him alive in my memories.
My family has been quite good at communicating about his loss as more time goes by—not quite as much as in the beginning, but often. I am also fortunate to have friends who make space for me to talk when I want or need to. When people ask how I am doing today, I appreciate it.
However, I realize that other people may not want to talk about the death of their loved one. They may not feel ready to do so, or perhaps we catch them at a bad moment, or perhaps they do not like to talk about such things generally. In that case, it is of course best to respect their feelings and not to insist—however, it does not hurt to let them know we are there should they want to talk.
As time goes on, people naturally start to forget that their friend or loved one is still grieving, and tend to talk about their loss less. However, that may just be the time to offer to talk or to hold space for them, as their grieving process has likely moved beyond denial, and to a stage where they may appreciate your efforts in a whole new way.
4) Promoting Self-Care:
Grief can make us forget to take care of ourselves, so any “self-care” practices you can help with are a wonderful way to support a grieving loved one. Our bodies tend to feel tense and tight from overwhelming emotions and many people suffer from headaches and other aches and pains after the death of a loved one. A friend of mine who is a massage therapist has given me a massage on more than one occasion, which provided a much appreciated relief in my body. Another friend gave me an essential oil burner with an uplifting scent for me to put in my home.
Not everyone works in a healing field such as massage, acupuncture, and so on, but this may be an opportune time to perhaps pool together to purchase a session for a grieving loved one, or to encourage them to book a session. We can also suggest other self-care activities, such as Epsom salts and candles for a relaxing bath, or something else we know might help them unwind.
5) Getting Moving/Getting Outdoors:
Offering our presence through exercise or an outdoors activity is a great way to support someone in grief—where words may or may not be required. Sometimes, it may be hard for them to resume their daily activities, but with our support that may get easier. Some of my good friends have joined me for a hike, taken me to try fun new dance classes, and taken me for a walk in the park or in the woods. My parents recently took a grieving friend for an afternoon on their boat as a way to relax on the lake.
We can suggest going for a walk, going to a yoga class, going to a fitness class, going for a bike ride—these are all examples of ways we can help our loved one get their endorphins pumping, while also being there for them. This encourages our loved ones to get back into activities they enjoy, or to try new ones, and also supports their health and well-being. Combining an activity with getting out for fresh air is even better!
6) Giving them Space (or Not):
Many people going through grief tend to become more withdrawn, and may become disinterested in socializing, being in large crowds, going on long outings, and so on. Others may actually prefer company to being alone, and may go out more than they previously did. My nightlife had already tamed considerably before my brother’s death, but after it I lost all interest in nightlife, went out less, and stayed for less time when I did go out.
I find myself preferring to socialize in smaller groups, and for shorter periods of time, for coffee or an outdoor activity. I don’t like the idea of being stuck somewhere where I can’t have my space when I feel I require it. I also find myself tired and not able to handle too many social commitments.
While we mean well in inviting our grieving loved ones out, we should also understand that they may not feel up for such events, outings, or activities and give them the space they need. We should not get offended if they do not wish to join us, and neither should we stop inviting them altogether.
With others, our well-timed invitations may be what is needed at that moment, and in that case we can remind them that should they need their space we will certainty grant it, but that we are happy for them to spend time with us.
Grief affects everyone differently, and our loved one is going through an experience that will leave them forever changed.
Author: Lana Gonzalez Balyk
Image: Unsplash/Ben White
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Callie Rushton