Ten Ways to Support
Bereaved people need friendship, companionship and a good listener.
Most of the time, when a person loses a loved one, it does not make the evening news. There is no outpouring of national support. The bereaved may feel isolated in their suffering and need the support of family, friends, and community to carry them forward. But it can be hard to connect with a person for fear of doing the wrong thing or saying something that is hurtful.
Here are a few simple actions you can take that are helpful:
Offering a sincere expression of sorrow is often the best way to convey your feelings and let people know they are not alone. Simply saying “I’m sorry” is far more effective than platitudes like “God only gives you what you can handle” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Do not force people to help you make sense of your own grief; they have enough to carry.
Giving people the space to talk or not talk can be a tremendous relief. No one is looking for you to “solve” their crisis or say magical words that will make them feel better. This is their time, their process, their loss. Respect their story and listen unconditionally.
Show up in predictable ways during a chaotic time. It could be as simple as delivering ice cream every Tuesday at 4p.m. or bringing food or staying to keep them company and do dishes. A person should not feel the need to entertain anyone or be kind to unannounced visitors arriving unexpectedly at their doorstep. Arrange a time to visit that is convenient and easy for them, then be consistent.
Working with the person to find ways to commemorate the life of their loved one provides an outlet that can help. While their loved one may be physically gone from a person’s life, they are still very present and “with them” every day. Consider helping them create an ornament, planting a tree, or framing a meaningful letter or piece of artwork in memory of their loved one.
Celebrating birthdays is one way to honor the lives of those we have lost. Draw people together to remember the loved one’s legacy and their influence on others. If a loved one enjoyed music, you might attend a concert together. If they had a favorite restaurant, you might treat the people to a meal there.
Working with people to incorporate new traditions that include their loved one in a meaningful way during the holiday season can reinforce that their loved one still matters – and that while these individuals may be gone, they are not forgotten. Be aware that the fall – from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day – tends to be a universally difficult time of year for people.
Slipping into deep grief, becoming isolated or easily irritated are common reactions near and during the anniversary of the death date. These days tend to be especially difficult for people for many years. Looking for opportunities to help people honor their loved ones in their own, often very personal and private way is best. It is not uncommon during these anniversaries for bereaved people to write an annual heartfelt remembrance letter, plant a garden, or simply experience nature through hiking, watching the sunrise, or sitting next to the ocean.
Many regular household chores fall by the wayside. Help people by raking their leaves, cleaning their kitchen or bathroom, mowing their grass, or taking on other routine tasks. Many times, just remembering to eat or shower can be overwhelming for the newly bereaved, especially in the first few days and weeks.
All the family
Depending on who has died in a family, it is common for supporters to show great concern for only one individual. It is important to acknowledge and care for all family members – especially young children who require a great deal of immediate attention and energy – which can be challenging for grieving adults. Consider taking the young children to a park or other energy-intensive outing, or simply invite them over to make cookies or an art project. Recognize that many family members tend to suffer in silence and repress their feelings in an effort to protect their others. They need support too; do not forget them.
Losing a loved one is forever. While time will pass for you, people will carry their memories every minute of every day for the rest of their lives. Many people look for opportunities to talk about their loved one in a safe and supportive environment. Using their loved one’s name and not being afraid to enter into a discussion about them may be a welcome conversation. Openly wondering what might have been, what path their life could have taken, and how their life could have positively influenced our world or society, are all ways to acknowledge and remember what we have all lost.