How to help someone who is grieving

Here I compiled suggestions for how an acquaintance, friend, or loved one can support someone who is grieving. I want to acknowledge that this list of suggestions is based on my own grief experience losing my baby son and those who have helped us survive. So, I want to highlight that each grief journey and context is different but I hope these suggestions will be helpful for others wanting to know how to help someone who is grieving. I am sure as time goes on, I will continue to add to or edit this list. I divided the list into two categories: the dos and don’ts.

The dos:

1. Be ok with their grief. Even if months and months (and years even) have passed, let the grieving person experience their emotions. Be willing to “mourn with them that mourn.” In other words, meet the griever where they are at emotionally, in the moment. Don’t try to cheer them up or make them “ok.” If sadness makes you uncomfortable, find other ways to serve them so they continue to know you care.

2. Keep the name of the person who died an active part of your vocabulary. Bring them up frequently in conversation with the person who is grieving. It means the world to me to hear other people say my son’s name or talk about a memory they have of him, or how he is meaningful to them in their lives. Some people may not want to talk about the person who has died for fear of adding more pain, but I can promise you, for me, it hurts way more to not have my loss acknowledged or act as if Charlie never existed.

3. Give gifts. Flowers are good and nice, but they die. If you give flowers, orchids are wonderful because they live for such a long time! But it is likely that the griever already has more flowers than space to put them, so send a small gift. Thoughtful gifts have been such treasures to me. I am listing some great gifts we got that have meant the world to us to help you generate your own ideas:

  • Photos! Photos! Photos! I can’t tell you how precious it is to receive an e-file with a photo someone had of Charlie. One friend compiled all the photos she had of Charlie into a sweet scrapbook.
  • journals to record our thoughts, feelings, and memories. Someone gave us a journal called, “Angel catcher” which is a journal specifically designed for a griever to prompt them to write their emotions, thoughts, and memories.
  • my brother took a photo of mine and artistically enhanced it to look like a watercolor painting. It was a photo of the Hawaiian sunrise, taken on my camera phone the day Charlie died. It symbolized our last happy memory as a family before he died. My brother enlarged the end result and framed it for us.
  • my bookgroup made us a beautiful quilt to snuggle under when we are having a hard day.
  • Willow tree angels and figurines now decorate my mantle around our last family photo. I love the willow tree brand because each figurine is meaningful.
  • Books. Make sure if you give a book to a griever that it is a book you have personally read or has come highly recommended. If you have read it, feel free to highlight parts that struck you, or include a note of why you chose to send that book and what it means to you. A Grace Disguised is one of my personal favorite grief books if you are looking for a specific suggestion. I have highlights on almost every page of that book! But there are many wonderful books for grievers out there.
  • meals! Especially if they can be frozen. In the beginning we got an influx of meals from people. My friends had a great idea and made us some ready-made freezer meals for the days when no one brought us a meal but we didn’t feel up to the task of cooking. This was especially helpful months after Charlie died. The meals had stopped coming but cooking continued to be an arduous task for us. If you don’t want to make freezer meals, a giftcard to their favorite restaurant is a wonderful idea too.
  • meaningful momentos. I have gotten some beautiful necklaces that mean the world to me. I wear a “charlie” necklace everyday. I have gotten two lockets with his photo in them as well as a beautiful necklace that has his birthstone on it. It is wonderful to wear something that makes me feel like I’m carrying him with me everywhere I go. Other meaningful momentos include personalized keepsakes like boxes, or photo frames.
  • Donations to a worthy cause in honor of the person who died, especially if it relates to the loss. For example, I can’t tell you how much it meant that friends of my mother-in-law, collected money to donate to First candle, a national nonprofit health organization to advance infant health and survival and support in the fight against Stillbirth, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and other causes of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID).
  • Inspirational music. One of the best gifts I received was from someone I don’t even know well. She compiled a cd of beautiful inspirational music for us. It included music that inspires her when she is having a difficult time. A few others have also given us songs or compiled cds. I listen to these cds  frequently. Music seems to have a special and unique way of communicating straight to the heart.

4. Serve the griever. Often times the regular daily tasks seem daunting to a griever. It was wonderful to have my mother-in-law clean my kitchen, make meals, and help take care of Hailee. If you have the resources, I promise you it’d be a very welcome gift to hire someone to come clean the griever’s house once or twice.

  • The best service is time and attention. I have loved friends who offer to go on walks or hikes or simply sit and visit and really want to know about my experience. The best healing in grief is being able to talk about it…over and over again.

5. If you are thinking about them, let them know. A text or email is sufficient. It is wonderful that months after Charlie died, people still text me and email me to tell me they are thinking of us and praying for us. This continued support and recognition that life is still hard months later, means a lot.

6. Unfortunately, many people in the world have experienced loss. It may not be the same kind of loss, but if you can relate to pain and sorrow, share your story with the griever. Caution: do not pretend that you know exactly how we feel. You don’t. Just as we can’t pretend to know how you feel with your loss. But even though we can’t understand each other completely, we can unite in a community of loss and pain and that makes the grief journey less lonely. Another caution though: do not compare griefs. Do not try to evaluate whose would be harder to bear. The hardest burden to bear is always your own. Just be willing to shed tears together, relate to the despair, pain, and sorrow and share your journey and how you found meaning, healing or hope. Other people’s stories and how they have survived have been such pillars of strength for me in this process.

7. Men grieve too. They also want to talk about their experiences as much as women do. Be flexible in figuring out and understanding how your loved one grieves in their unique way and how you can best support them. If you try something and it fails, keep trying.

8. Children grieve too.Losing a sibling or parent suddenly to death is very confusing and heartbreaking and children often don’t know how to express their feelings. Recognize that behavioral changes in children are normal grief reactions. Further, if you want to talk to children about the loss of their loved one, make sure you stay within their developmental limits. Also make sure you consult with the parents about how they are explaining death to the child. For example, it was very important to me that no one told my 3 year old daughter that her baby brother was buried in the ground. That would only frighten her and confuse her. Further, I don’t want people to say her baby brother is “sleeping” because that could make her afraid to go to sleep. It’s helpful to me and our family when people talk to Hailee that they stick to our story that Charlie died and went to Jesus’ house. She will understand more and more what death means as she continues to grow up.

9. Ask us questions! Lots of them! A couple of things happened to me in the early stages of grief. First, my mind stopped working. But I desperately wanted to talk about my experience and Charlie. I needed people to prompt me with questions to help me articulate something I felt emotionally. Secondly, as a griever, I never know how much to share with someone. I’m not sure how much they want to know about my experience. Hence if they ask me questions, it solves that problem because it continually invites me to share, which is exactly what I need to heal! Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Questions mean a lot to us. Categories of questions that have been helpful to me include favorite memories or things I loved about Charlie. Then life after losing Charlie, like, what meaning I make of his loss? How I cope? What I believe? What is helpful? What is not helpful? How has this changed me? etc. I want to caution you around asking questions surrounding the circumstances of the loved one’s death. I don’t want to tell you to avoid these questions, but approach them carefully. It is hard for me to talk about details of the day Charlie died because of the memories it brings up. But if I believe you truly care, I will share with you and it can help me continue to process those painful memories.

10. Help the griever find help. There are plenty of resources out there for people who have lost loved ones, and often relate to the specific loss, whether it be infant, child, sibling, parent, etc. However, the griever likely lacks the emotionally energy to go searching for these resources. Therefore, if you can help them get connected with a support group or therapist (if needed) it would be a great service.

11. Hugs! Lots of them. Sometimes (many times) words are not necessary. Hugs may be all we need and speak volumes.

The don’ts:

1. Do not ask someone who is grieving “how are you doing?” unless you really want to spend the time talking with them about where they are emotionally. When people use “how are you?” as a simple, flippant, greeting to me, I have a couple reactions. First, it makes me aware how in-congruent it would be for me to say respond with, “good” or “fine” but then it also makes me feel awkward to be honest and say “horrible” when I know the person greeting me really just wanted me to say, “good.” Further, “how are you?” makes me remember that I’m not ok and and my world will never be “fine” again. So if you do ask a grieving person “how are you?” as a simple greeting with no wish to elaborate on their response, be ok if they say, “I’m hanging in there” or “I’m surviving.” Tangentially, if you do ask someone how they are doing and they do respond, “fine” or “good” but you know they are not really fine or good, it can be really validating and helpful to say, “It’s ok if you’re not fine.” That may give the griever permission to acknowledge their feelings and articulate them.

2. Do not ask the griever to identify what they need. Grief is a completely new experience for most of us, and especially in the beginning, it is nearly impossible to know what support we “need.” Instead of asking, “What can I do for you?” or “What do you need?” give the person options, like, “I was thinking of bringing you a meal this week, what night would be best?” or “Do you want to go for walk with me and talk? or would you like to go to a movie with me and zone out?”

3. Do not give advice. Grieving is an especially vulnerable time and often we are simply struggling to survive the day. However, as a caring friend or loved one, you may observe there are things we could be doing that would likely be helpful for us. But is it not helpful to say, “You should really exercise” or “you should really go out with your friends.” While well intended, advice can make the griever defensive and feel more guilty than we already do about how inept we feel in our new life. Instead, if you want to make a suggestion, approach it from a curiosity stand point. For example, ask, “Has it been your experience that exercise helps your mood? I know it does mine. I’m just wondering if it might be helpful for you?” Or, “I’ve noticed you haven’t been seeing much of your friends these days. I’m just wondering what that is about? Is it hard to be around them? Are there friends you find helpful? Who are they? How can I help you so you can connect with those friends? Do you need a babysitter?”

4. Do not be offended if you receive little or no gratitude for your time, gifts, or efforts. I promise you, your time, gifts and efforts are very appreciated. Life saving even. But grief is a confusing, overwhelming, and dark time. I know I have not adequately thanked people for what they have done for us or given us. Further, during the overwhelming initial stages of grief when I was living in a complete fog, people gave us gifts, or made us meals and I do not remember who they were so I don’t know who to thank! But I continue to be so grateful for their service!

5. Do not put a time limit on grief. While I believe I will be happy again, I will also grieve for Charlie for the rest of my life. I will never get over the loss of my baby. Please don’t expect your loved one to get over their losses or tell them to “move on.” We are learning to live in a world that has gone wrong and we will figure that out…eventually. But please have patience with us in this difficult process. It’s ok to still cry and ache over the loss months and years after it happened.

6. Do not expect much from the griever. What I mean by this is, grief is intensely preoccupying. For the next while, we may not be the daughters/sons, sisters/brothers/, husbands/wives, or friends we used to be. We are surviving. We have very limited resources physically, emotionally and mentally. Please be patient with us. We will be more thoughtful, more caring, more attentive later on down the road. Please don’t be mad if we forget a birthday or we can’t help you move the next weekend.

7. Do not make comments that oversimplify and invalidate our experience. While well intended, comments like, “They’re in a better place,” or “everything happens for a reason,” or “God must’ve wanted them with him,” are NOT helpful. Even if we believe your statement to be true, it does nothing to diminish the feeling of emptiness in our lives. And worse, such comments may even make us feel selfish and guilty for wanting to keep our loved ones with us, instead of turning them over to God.

  • On the other hand, if you want to share some of your beliefs around death and grief, that is wonderful, but initiate the conversation with questions like, “How has losing (insert name) affected or changed your beliefs?”

8. Do not take our behavior personally. Do not be offended if we don’t answer our phones, or return phone calls or texts, or if we decline visits or dinner dates. I promise it is not about you. Grieving is a balance between not isolating from others but also spending the time necessary to do our own personal emotional work, which often occurs alone. Sometimes, we just need to be alone or we just need to be quiet.

9. Don’t feel guilty if you are “guilty” of one of these “don’ts.” You are probably as new at offering support to someone who is grieving as we are at grieving. We are in this in process together.

1o. Do not give up. We may isolate, we may be short tempered, be may try to push you away. But please don’t let us do that. The grief journey is so lonely. Please do not let us travel it alone. We need you and we love you.

14 thoughts on “How to help someone who is grieving

  1. Wow Anna ! I cried when I read this. What an amazing and helpful list. I am so appreciative that you wrote this because we really don’t know the do’s and don’t’s. I am sure this will be soooo useful to soooo many who are searching for ways to connect and help, but at the same time do not know how. I’ve told you lots and lots of times–but you truly never cease to amaze me. We do still think about you and pray for you everyday. Charlie’s program is on my fridge and my kids talk about him and pray for your family daily. Love you!!
    JoJo

  2. This is so well written and would be helpful for everyone to read. I am like Johanna and cried. You are an incredibly thoughtful, amazing woman and I love you dearly!

  3. Thank you not only for sharing this list, but also for the blog in its entirety. I appreciate your openness and courage. You articulate your feelings so eloquently. I think of you nearly every time I hold my sweet Adele. I remember when we announced are pregnancies around the same time, and Charlie was born the day after Adele. I hope they were good friends in heaven before they decided to grace us with their presence. :-)

    I love you, Anna, and am always thinking of you! You are a strong woman!

  4. I love this. It was so helpful to me to read this and I wish everyone in the world would read it too! Since experiencing my own form of loss, I don’t feel uncomfortable with others’ grief anymore and I want to help and comfort others more than I ever have. But, I still struggle with knowing exactly how to do that, especially since every person and their story is different. You are a remarkable woman for being willing to help and educate others during the hardest time of your life!

  5. What a wonderful, heartfelt list! I love this. What an invaluable resource for grievers and those who try to bring them comfort!

    As usual, way to be amazing. :)

  6. My dear sweet young mother, Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your thoughts and suggestions on grief.

    I am Bethany Loosli’s mom and she told me that your writing would resonate with my soul.
    Your Charlie was a blessing to the world and has allowed you to give voice to many who have suffered a loss such as yours, but have no words.

    We lost a baby 40 years ago and still miss her, even though she taught us so much about life, death and resiliency.

    Blessings to you and your family,

    Judy Helm Wright aka Auntie Artihcoke

  7. Awesome list. Would you mind if I linked this post on my own blog? I have a section called “Help” where I give suggestions on how to help, and I’ll put it in your name. You did such a great job with it, I think it would help a lot of people.

  8. I’m another crier… This was absolutely perfect. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been on both sides of this list, and it rang so incredibly true. I’m sharing this on Facebook, and I’m sharing it on my blog. Bless you, a million times.

  9. I’m not sure how I came across your blog, but I am so very sorry for the loss of your sweet Charlie. He is beautiful! This is such good advice about grief! I have a close friend who is going through a divorce and much of this can apply to her as well. Different heartbreak, but she is grieving nonetheless! Thank you!

  10. Thank you so much for being brave enough to share your story and so willing to help others. Though my loss was much different then yours I am very sympathetic. It has been 5 years since I lost my little Eden. I love the part you said about “getting over it” Its true that you never really do. You just learn to live and do the best you can. It does get better but I still miss my little girl and grieve for her. All my love and support go out to you and your family!

  11. At last, some useful information that everyone can use…So often we fell so helpless, when we try to comfort a loved one. I don’t know anyone that couldn’t use these thoughts….

  12. Thank you for writing this. It is so hard to see someone grieving and not know what to do, and your article is exactly what I needed. I am so sad for you in the loss of your child, and I admire you for taking the time to write this to help others in similar circumstances. I just cannot thank you enough.

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