How to Help Grieving Friends and Family
Updated: Jan 8
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." — Winnie the Pooh
Grief and the journey of emotions that come with it is something we as Humans will experience at some point in our lifetimes. It may be the result of the death of a friend, family member, pet, or even a job. While intense and complicated, grief is a gradual process that commonly improves over time. Some days will be more difficult than others. It is also important to realize that every person’s grief is expressed as individually as their DNA.
As a friend or family member, your presence and ability to help someone grieving will be deeply meaningful. If you are reluctant to reach out to someone grieving because you don’t know what to do – the work that psychologists and researchers have done can guide you on how to be supportive of the grieving.
What is Grief?
The American Psychological Association describes grief as the anguish people experience after a significant loss, usually the death of a loved one. Symptoms include separation anxiety, confusion, yearning for the lost person or pet, and excessive thoughts or “rumination” about the past and future.
The Five Stages of Grief
The long-standing five-stage model – also called the Kubler-Ross Model, originated in a 1969 book, On Death and Dying, by psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Since its publication, researchers continue to study grief and adapt this model, which is anecdotal – not science-based.
Please note that the grieving could experience the following stages in various order – or in some cases, not at all. There are also arguments that the stages are too rigid and pushing someone through them could cause harm, since everyone grieves in their unique way. Whether you are experiencing grief yourself or supporting someone who is – these stages are simply a guide to the emotions that accompany grief.
Denial – Believing that the diagnosis was wrong, the news false, or something else happened to make everyone believe something that is not true.
Anger- At some point, the individual realizes that they can no longer continue existing in their false reality. This creates frustration, often targeting the individual who originally brought them the news. Statements such as “Why me?” or “It’s not fair” are also made.
Bargaining – Once the anger begins to fade, the griever begins searching for a way to avoid feeling grief. The goal is to create a source of hope. People may begin to bargain with God, the doctors, their families, or themselves. In return, the individual will live a better life or offer to give anything in return for more time with someone they have lost.
Depression – If the bargaining doesn’t provide the hope they seek – a state of sadness descends. This depression is based on the recognition of their own mortality or the loss that has been experienced. They become sullen, silent, and isolate themselves. They may feel like nothing is worth doing because of how they feel.
Acceptance – In this stage, the individual will make a decision and accept the reality that the loved one has left physically and begin to recognize this as a permanent reality.
How to Support Someone Grieving
Even if you have experienced the death of someone close to you, it is still hard to find the “right” words or how to act around the grieving. While you can’t make their pain disappear, your presence is more comforting than you think. If you are looking for specific things you can do to support your friends and family, here are some sincere ways to provide support and show how much you care.
Reach out Regularly – Whether by cards, text, phone calls, or brief visits – reaching out can be deeply meaningful. People experiencing grief most likely will not reach out on their own, so reaching out on a consistent basis can be helpful. Even though the person or even yourself may not be ready to talk about their grief, it lets them know they are welcome to talk about their feelings and the loss itself when they are ready.
Ways you can help – Yes, emotional support is important, but sometimes hands-on help is required. Don’t just ask if you can “do anything,” instead, offer or just do specific acts, such as: cleaning the kitchen or bathrooms, doing their laundry, grocery shopping, taking out the trash, yard work, or delivering meals from their favorite restaurants.
Listen – Everyone grieves differently. When we see loved ones grieve, it may be hard to adequately find the right words to say. So, simply listen – but don’t shy away from silence. Focus on the words and feelings they are expressing, rather than formulating your response or sharing your own experiences. By providing the space to speak and be heard, you are showing them that it is okay to grieve.
It’s Okay to Cry
One of the most important aspects of moving through grief is the ability to express deep sadness and allow the grieving to cry. It may be tempting to cheer them up, but let’s face it, it is extremely uncomfortable to witness the pain that they are experiencing. Remember that tears are a necessary part of the healing process.