There are plenty of articles floating around the internet about how to deal with losing someone: Information on the five stages of grief, various methods to cope, resources to seek out when you lose someone you love. Coping with death is one of the most difficult aspects of life, and yet it is something we all experience. Difficult in a very different way is having to watch someone you care about grieve. Even if you yourself don’t feel the effects of the loss, it can be extremely painful to watch a friend or loved one go through the grief process— and difficult to figure out how to help them.
Two years ago, my best friend lost her mother while living in a different state. Separated by hundreds of miles, I was at a loss on how I could help her and support her go through what could only be described as the worst of tragedies. I was at a loss: Calling her to talk felt too intrusive, sending a simple text message felt too impersonal. In trying to figure out what to do, I remembered how I felt when I had lost a family member: Isolated, overwhelmed by the logistics, and in need of real empathy and support. I did my best to offer her as much practical help as I could, beyond a few words of kindness.
When someone you love loses someone they love, you may not know how to help that person. Everyone grieves differently, so there’s no definitive list of tips to follow should you ever find yourself in this situation. Despite that, here are a few simple tips to support a grieving friend without intruding on their pain during a very difficult time.
Keep in touch
When someone is grieving, you may not know exactly what to say to them. Your first instinct may be to leave them to themselves completely — but while a person does need space while grieving, it can be extremely hard when all their friends drop off the map. Send them texts letting them know you’re thinking about them. Ask them if you can call them or drop by when they’re ready. Don’t disappear just because they’re hurting.
Too often people treat those grieving like children—too afraid to talk about their loss but also too hesitant to talk about “normal things.” When this happens, a grieving person can be left feeling isolated and alone in a time they need their friends the most.
Don’t say “call me if you need anything”
While this phrase usually comes with the best of intentions, your grieving friend will probably not even know what she needs, let alone be able to delegate out tasks to loved ones.
Instead, come up with active ways you can help and volunteer those services. Shoot them a text asking if you could come by to water their plants or walk their dog. Bring over pre-cooked, pre-portioned meals in disposable containers so they don’t have to wash them. Volunteer your babysitting services. If you don’t live nearby, there are other options to provide practical, useful help that will make them feel loved and taken care of: Hire a cleaning service to stop by (ask in advance so they can plan for this, of course) or send them a gift card for a meal delivery service like DoorDash, GrubHub, or UberEats, so they can have access to easy, free food at a time when cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping are difficult.
Don’t tell them how to feel or what to do.
When talking to them about their loss, you may feel tempted to “relate” to them with your own experiences with grief and how you handled it. While it might seem helpful, you run the risk of commandeering their grief and making it about you. Since everyone grieves differently, there is no “right” way to grieve, so don’t offer advice unless you’ve been asked or it.
Remember that saying things like “everything happens for a reason,” or “look on the bright side,” or “it will get better” can hurt because they invalidate your friend’s pain. Grieving people should be allowed to be hurting.
Acknowledge their loss
Your friend is going through something terrible, so you shouldn’t have to pretend otherwise. Tell your friend that you know things are not OK, but you are there for them anyway. Acknowledge and remember the person they lost, and remember to be sensitive on important days (holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries especially).
In short, always be there with love and compassion to offer them, but never assume you know best. Try to pay attention to their signals so you can know if they want you around or need a little space. If you can’t tell, it is totally okay to ask them.
Supporting your friend through their pain won’t be easy, but nothing surrounding grief and loss ever is. Your fearless care can help them get through one of the worst times in their life. Though you can’t make their pain go away, you can offer them hope and love to cut through the bitterness of loss.