Talking to someone who has just lost a loved one can be difficult. Dealing with grief is a long and complicated process and they may behave in ways you don’t expect. But it is always essential to remember that their grief is greater than any awkwardness you might be feeling.
Although everyone copes with bereavement in a different way, here are five insights that will help you be there for your grieving friend:
1. They know when you're avoiding them
Some people like to be alone to grieve. Some people need to be surrounded by friends. Either way, the bereaved like to have a choice, so offering to be there for them is always appreciated, even if they don’t take you up on the offer.
Sometimes people will start avoiding a bereaved friend. Even those friends who were there for them right after their loss may drift away and begin not returning calls.
To a certain extent, the bereaved will be too busy trying to deal with their grief to want to get into a big fight with their friends. But they do notice, and sometimes it is hurtful. This is why it is always better to reach out and say something than avoid them.
2. Don’t be offended if they don’t want your help
Support from family and friends can be really helpful while someone tries to cope with their loss – but sometimes they would rather be alone. This is not a reflection on you.
Coping with bereavement is difficult and what a person needs can change from day to day, or even from hour to hour. Just because they turn down your help doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the offer. Sometimes even just knowing that someone wants to help is enough to make them feel safe and supported.
But crucially, if they turn down an invitation to go out somewhere, do not take this as a sign to stop inviting them to anything. Just because they don’t want to hang out today doesn’t mean they won’t jump at the chance tomorrow.
3. They hate it when you pretend their loved one never existed
It can be frustrating when people purposefully avoid any mention of the person who has passed away. They existed, they still exist to those who loved them, and they don’t want to forget them.
Normality can be an important part of healing – yes, sometimes they will enjoy small talk and gossip – but if the conservation naturally turns towards their loved one, it’s okay to mention them.
Your grieving friend might cry or get upset when talking about them, but this doesn’t mean that mentioning them was wrong. If they do start crying, just listen to what they have to say and let them know it’s alright to cry.
4. It can take them a really long time to be okay (and they’ll probably never be the same)
If you didn't know the person who died very well, you may have moved through your grief quite quickly. You have your own life, your own problems, and that’s okay. But don’t expect your bereaved friend to be ‘back to normal’ after a month or two. Grieving can take years, and it will probably change their lives completely.
When the loss has first happened they will feel as if they will never be okay again. Telling them “you’ll be okay” or “be strong” might not help, as they feel anything but okay or strong.
In time they will find ways to smile and laugh, and enjoy life again, but expecting them to quickly ‘get over it’ and return to exactly as they were before is unfair and unrealistic.
Give your friend plenty of time and, as long as they are not hurting themselves or others, let them grieve as they see fit.
5. They do appreciate your support
Talking to a grieving person is hard and your friend is probably aware that you feel awkward. But they do appreciate your time.
Especially in the early stages of grief they might feel very angry all the time, and you might find that they take this out on you. Chances are, this isn’t really about something you’ve done. They are just going through a lot of extreme emotions and need to let them out. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about you. Try not to respond with anger – if it is too much, remove yourself from the situation and let them calm down.
It can be difficult to thank the people who support you through grief, but rest assured that your grieving friend will appreciate any genuine attempts to be there for them.
Contact bereavement support organizations for more advice on supporting a grieving friend.