How to Help Someone in Mourning

When a friend or family member loses a loved one, the tragedy presents a powerful opportunity for you to serve as an important source of emotional support. But what exactly should you do? Should you text, email, call, or visit? How often should you make contact? What should you say? Will it be uncomfortable? Will it help? How do you know if your friend or family member wants to hear from you? The purpose of this article is to answer these questions based on my own experience losing a parent, provide comfort to people in a similar situation, and suggest tips to be a good friend or family member to a grieving loved one.

loss

What Happened?
After my father passed away, I felt both heartened and disappointed by the reactions of my close friends and family. In addition to mourning, I wrestled with the confusion I felt over my experiences with people I thought would be more present in my most important time of need.

When I received the tragic news of my father’s passing, I felt like the world was crashing in around me. I felt shock, disbelief, devastation, and regret. I had obsessive traumatic thought patterns that haunted me. In the days that followed, I felt sadness, anger, confusion, gratitude, and love. I also felt disappointment. The disappointment stemmed from the response of some of my friends and family who were absent after my father passed away. I had been there extensively for many of them through death, job loss, divorce, and other hardships. Now, in my time of need, they were nowhere to be found. A few friends and family members sent me a text and then disappeared while others never even contacted me. Some called once, didn’t reach me, I returned their call and left a message, and I never heard from them again. While I couldn’t identify with such detachment and while I admit I was initially resentful and hurt, I learned to focus on the people in my life who were providing support. I must also admit though that I will long remember who was and was not present as I mourned and continue to grieve.

How to Help
My checkered experience inspired me to make a list of simple acts people can perform to provide comfort to a grieving friend or family member. I call them gifts because that’s how they will likely be received.

Gift #1: When someone is grieving, unless you’re told or sense otherwise, be present fast, often, and on an ongoing basis. Don’t assume someone is all right simply because a week has passed. Don’t use outward appearance as a guide either. You don’t need to say anything other than you care and that you’re there for the person.

Gift #2: Call, call, call. If the person doesn’t answer or the person doesn’t want to talk, respect his/her wish. In the absence of a refusal, keep calling. If the conversation goes well, call the next day or in a few days again. Grieving doesn’t end overnight. Your friend or family member will probably need ongoing support. He/she may want to speak with someone. Make it you.

Gift #3: Send a book. I received a book on grieving the first day my father passed away and began reading it quickly and often. It helped. I learned many of the emotions I felt were common and understandable but irrational reactions to death. It set me straight and helped me begin the healing process.

Gift #4: Send flowers or a plant. Receiving a flowered plant from my compassionate friends at Mercy for Animals was a beautiful gesture that meant a lot to me. I had created an in-home memorial for my father with some of his personal belongings and a photo of us. The plant they sent me still sits beside it and brings me comfort.

Gift #5: Send a card or letter in the mail. There is something about someone taking the time to send a card or write a letter in today’s age that means more than an email. Sending a letter or card shows that you took extra time to care. Email and texts, although the most common forms of communication today, simply don’t feel personal enough for a condolence. I can’t imagine sending someone a text alone to express my condolences over the loss of a parent.

Gift #6: Ask a question. Listen. Let him/her talk. Accept and recognize all feelings. One of my father’s most valuable traits was his listening skills. He never interrupted. He was an active listener too. He showed interest and asked follow-up questions. Try to be that person for a friend or family member. Here are some questions you may consider asking: Do you want to talk about anything? Can I help you with anything? Do you want to tell me how you’re feeling? And then just listen and offer support as the opportunity arises. (Saying that a person “lived a long life” or telling someone to “be tough” probably won’t help. Minimizing loss is not a good strategy.)

Gift #7: Recommend a support group or therapy. While I did not find a support group that interested me, there are plenty available. I relied on the support of friends and family who had also endured loss to walk me through the issues I faced immediately following my father’s unexpected passing. They told me there is no timetable on grieving, it’s all right to cry, and that my feelings were natural. A few friends shared the stages of their grieving process and I felt comfort realizing they mirrored my own. That helped.

Gift #8: Offer to assist with the aftermath. Depending on a person’s situation, the to-do list after a loss can be overwhelming from investigating what happened, speaking with doctors, notifying people, planning a funeral, emptying a home, saving personal belongings, selling a car, and cancelling accounts. Giving advice, making a call, or sharing previous experiences will be much appreciated.

The finality of death is shocking, depressing, debilitating, lonely, surreal, painful, and lasting. Being present to support your loved ones in their time of need will help them turn those feelings into gratitude, love, and positive memories. They will always remember you for it. Trust me.

17 thoughts on “How to Help Someone in Mourning

  1. Everything you are saying makes complete senses and I never knew how to help someone grieving until I was the one grieving. I feel so bad that I was not there for friends and family like I needed to be because I had no idea how to. I will always be present for family and friends now that I know how to help. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for sharing this very valuable information especially while still raw from your own personal experience. I think we have all experienced those people in our life who drop out when we are in crisis. It is painful to have our loss compounded by a lack of support of friends/family/community and yet it it is such a common experience that one must self-examine: When, how and why did I drop out on someone in need?
    I think part of generating compassion around loss is sharing stories about the person who has passed on. This creates another level of connection. You did this beautifully with your post yesterday when you shared photos of your dad along with all that he taught you. I don’t know you or him but I definitely felt some of your pain and also gratitude for the incredible soul he Is.

  3. Thank you for this Andrew. I wish I knew you better on a more personal level, because I have been where you are. Not just with my mom, but I had identical twin boys die in 2004. It was the worst time of my life. I got one card… But I was so angry that it didn’t matter at the time. What DID matter was a friend I had known since grade school called and said “it is God’s will.. You’ll have another baby” (I didn’t). And my other grade school friend who called from North Carolina and said “Sheree” and then just cried with me for many minutes. Just sat and cried with me. These are things I will never forget. I am not on Facebook since November, but you have my email. I would feel blessed to talk to you about this. I don’t want to put my phone number on here, but if you email me
    Shereewolfe@earthlink.net
    I’ll give it you.
    I’m here. You HAVE been a great friend and mentor to all of us.
    Thinking of you
    Sheree

  4. I too experienced exactly all those things. I still go to support group and there is where I found the answer..its not by suggesting to others what to do in case it happens ..its about accepting that people are not going to behave the way you want them to or how you would treat them..they are themselves and you are yourself. My best friend didtn come to my moms funeral, she didnt call and when she did , she avoided it..people who havent lost, will not get it, its that simple and we must not have expectations on them because we will be disappointed ….I struggled with this for quite a while but thru therapy, this is the answer. And this topic comes up quite often. But like you said, focus on the ones that are there to help you through. The thing is , we are really the only ones that can make it through the darkest of times.
    thank you for addressing this topic

    1. Thank you Stephanie. Indeed, it is not time well spent trying to figure out why some people are not present in our time of need. I suggest moving past it as quickly as possible since it’s not a good feeling. A person in mourning has plenty of other issues to handle. It is insightful though.

      Thank you for taking the time to write.

  5. This is very hard for me, Andrew. I lost my mom in Feb. last year. The morning after I said goodbye to her, my uncle took his own life. They were the two constants and my very best friends throughout my whole life…..we three did everything together and my mom was my whole life. I struggle every day. I can’t even look at pictures, it only reminds me of what I don’t have anymore. I am in counseling, but mostly, I have to stay in the very second I’m in. If I think about tomorrow, or next week, or this summer, or next year, I start having anxiety because I don’t know how to get through one more day. It appears to me that many people are scared to say anything to me for fear that I will break down (and I have actually asked them at work not to say anything to me for that reason) and many people just don’t want to be around anyone who might rain on their parade and I don’t say that in an ugly way, I just think that people think about you for a moment and move on with their lives. I said all of that to say this, Andrew- I am where you are, my heart hurts for you, I am thinking about you. And if you want or need to just talk to someone, send me an e-mail…..maybe we can help each other.

    1. something I do want to share, if any of your losses are from cancer, there is a wonderful place called Gildas Club..its founded by Gilda Radner from SNL who died of ovarian cancer. She wanted to create a place where people affected by cancer can go..There, people fighting cancer, people beat cancer, those affected by someone with cancer who have lost someone to cancer can go. They have a bereavement group that I have been attending since my mom died 2 years ago . I didnt go at first..it took me more than 7 months suffering in silence and alone before I went. It helped tremendously. I too didnt want to go anywhere, i did nothing, my house fell a part around me, I coudlnt work…there was no joy left for me in my world, how on earth could I be happy again?
      I am certainly not normal..none of us will ever be normal again..just adapted to the new normal..I still have grief attacks..I still cry but I am living, something my mom would want me to do and Im trying to be happy, something I know she wants for me.
      I would certainly try a group, if one doesnt fit just right, try another ..Gildas was a good fit for me.

      1. Thank you Stephanie. Gilda’s Club is a special organization. We held a few events for the South Florida location when I volunteered with Hands on Miami. My thoughts are with you. I’m glad you found comfort at Gilda’s.

  6. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, Andrew. It’s often very hard to know the “right” thing to say or do at difficult times like these, so your advice is very much appreciated. Thinking of you and wishing you peace.

  7. Andrew- Thank you for this post! I’m so sorry for your loss and even though I don’t know you personally, my heart breaks for you. I can’t really say I know how you feel, but I went through something similar recently. Last year, our then 19-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer. She underwent two surgeries and then 12 weeks of chemotherapy. It was a very difficult time for our family, but luckily she is in remission now and is doing well. However, during that time of her illness, I was shocked by some of our so-called friends’ and family’s reaction. Like you, people that I thought were close friends and family were noticeably absent. This hurt deeply. I’m still struggling with it. I’m trying to forgive. I know that some people just don’t know what to say or do and so they choose to just not do anything. Or perhaps they think that we have plenty of support, that we don’t need them? I wish at the very least that they would have said that. You know, “Hey, I just don’t know what to say or do, but if you need anything….” When I see these people now, it’s hard not to think about how they weren’t there for us. But like you, I’m just trying to focus on those family and friends who were our rocks and endless sources of love and support. I’m so grateful for them. You’re in my thoughts and prayers and I wish you well.

    1. Thank you for your kind note. I’m sorry your daughter endured such a difficult experience.

      Continue to focus on the people who were present in your life. You have the right idea.

      There will be many people who don’t want any contact while grieving. As I mentioned, if someone expresses they don’t want to talk or someone senses it, we should definitely allow them their space. In the absence of those scenarios, however, I recommend everyone reach out and do so on an ongoing basis.

      I appreciate you taking the time to write to me and share your story.

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