Words of Comfort: How to Offer Support for a Grieving Family Member or Friend

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Supporting someone you love who is grieving can be tough. Part of this is because you want to help, but deep down, you know that you can’t fully take their pain away. In addition, it was difficult to console a grieving friend or family member before the COVID-19 pandemic — but this past year has certainly complicated the process. Offering support with a screen separating you from your loved one can prevent you from extending a comforting hug or hand and furthering your message of support.

Still, knowing what to say and do — in addition to just being there for them without necessarily saying or doing too much — is a great start. Grieving is a gradual process, and the ultimate healer is time. However, in the process, you can help a loved one cope by providing support in different ways. Use these tips to get started in offering reassurance and comfort to someone who’s navigating the grieving process.

Acknowledge Their Grief Aloud

Many people are hesitant to directly mention the cause of someone’s grief. We tend to think it’ll make the person feel worse, as bringing up a name or a situation can often prompt the person to start crying as memories or thoughts come flooding in. Yet crying is a natural and healthy part of grieving. Speaking candidly about their grief can be much more comforting than noticeably barring it from the conversation, too. If your friend or family member is comfortable with it, you can use the word "died" rather than "passed away" if that's the root of the grief. Speak the name of the lost loved one.

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For example, "I'm going to miss Stephanie so much," is much more heartfelt and personal than the universal "I'm sorry for your loss," notes Harvard Medical School. Using truly comforting words — and expressing your authentic sentiment — over a loss can be more helpful than saying something you could imagine telling someone you don’t know well. Your authenticity and recognition can make your grieving loved ones feel more comfortable about their grief and the way they're feeling.

It’s important to understand that some people who are grieving feel shame around their grief, as if they’re a burden because they’re hurting or difficult to be around. Acknowledging their grief out loud is an effective way to let a person who’s grieving know that isn't the case. Of course, you want to be sensitive about how you bring the situation up, but don't erase it from the conversation. It can help loved ones recognize that you’re someone they don't have to tiptoe around and that they can speak honestly to you about what they’re going through.

Reach Out First

Don't wait for someone who’s grieving to reach out to you. People going through something difficult often don't have the energy to ask for help. Many times, they don't even know what to ask for. Doing that work for them is some of the best support you can provide. Call them to express your sympathy and ask them if they want to talk. Check in with them often, even if it's just to let them know you’re thinking about them.

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Offer to help out, too. Don't tell them to let you know if they need anything; they might be reluctant to do so, and that won’t make things easier for them. Help out with specific things, like bringing over groceries or pre-made meals, cleaning their house, driving them around, assisting with childcare or answering their phone. Many people dealing with grief feel guilty asking for this kind of help, and if you know the person well enough it can be best to just do these things without asking. They’ll appreciate it.

Listen Without Trying to Fix Everything

Your grieving loved one will need someone to listen to them when they feel like talking. They need someone to listen without offering unsolicited advice and without judgment. If someone special to them died, let them do the talking about how they feel. Let them repeat the story over and over if they have to. A compassionate ear helps more than you know to lessen the pain. You can offer words to comfort the bereaved without putting your two cents in or interjecting. Only give advice if they specifically ask for it. It's perfectly okay to admit that you don’t know what to say but want them to know they have your support.

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Part of being a good listener to someone experiencing loss or any type of grief is understanding the grieving process. It doesn't always manifest as sadness or depression. Feelings of anger and anxiety are common. Having trouble sleeping is normal, as is feeling fatigue. Disruptions in eating patterns happen often as well. If you feel okay with it, you can be someone to whom they feel comfortable letting it all out. If you're talking in-person rather than through a screen, you might hold their hand and hug them instead of trying to come up with solutions. Remember, no advice you can give is going to take the pain away. However, your presence can do wonders for helping them cope in the meantime.

Don't Minimize Their Loss by Being Overly Positive

It can be helpful to bring up genuine positives to a loved one who is grieving — but the way you do so matters. For instance, reminding them that the person they lost was loved or lived a full life can be comforting. However, you want to avoid overdoing it or only focusing on the good. Not everything has a positive spin, and that's okay; it doesn’t have to. Being too positive can easily make someone who’s grieving feel like you’re minimizing their pain or loss, as if it isn't a big deal or they’re being too emotional about it.

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An example of a minimizing comment might be, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." While it’s true they may come out the other end of their grief stronger, in the moment it can feel like you're pushing aside their sadness or suggesting their emotions aren't valid.

Expressing things through the lens of your faith to someone who doesn't share your beliefs is another thing to avoid. If someone doesn’t believe in God, telling them their dead loved one is "in a better place" won’t help them feel better. Saying that what happened is "part of God's plan" could make them feel angry rather than comforted. Even if you mean well, leaving your religion out of it is much more supportive if they don’t share your beliefs. Your words of sympathy and comfort can easily be expressed using non-religious language instead.

Seeing people you love grieve is never easy, but take heart. The loving support you offer can be a powerful tool in helping family and friends process their grief.

Resource Links:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/expert-answers/grieving-process/faq-20058274

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/in-depth/grief/art-20045340

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/ways-to-support-someone-who-is-grieving

https://pathwayshealth.org/grief-support/grief-can-have-very-real-physical-symptoms/

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