• Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing can keep us from reaching out to support people, especially in times of grief

  • Grief counsellor Lianna Champ offers four ways you can support a grieving loved one

  • We have therapists and counsellors who specialise in bereavement available here

When we find ourselves supporting someone who is grieving, we can be so worried about saying the wrong thing, that we can end up talking about something completely different or we fill the spaces with platitudes. We don’t need to rush in with ‘sticking plaster’ words but we can just be there as a presence without trying to force or change anything. It is as much about us feeling comfortable as the person we are supporting.

So, if you find yourself as a shoulder to lean on, here are some helpful tips:

1. Make contact and stay in touch

Ask if they prefer text, phone call or in person. Grievers often feel isolated and if people avoid making contact for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing upset, it can just serve to intensify these feelings of isolation.

2. Acknowledge their loss 

And encourage conversations about the person who died. So often we avoid mentioning the name of the person who has died in case it causes upset. It doesn’t. Even though there may be tears, that’s ok. Mentioning their name opens up conversations and when we lose ourselves in memory we often find laughter. Sharing our memories is where healing can begin. Grievers often really appreciate the opportunity to talk and share their memories. It shows how much you care and also how important that person was and still is.

3. Let them know that they can share their feelings and thoughts with you in confidence

If they cry, don’t try and change how they are feeling. Tears are part of the healing, not the hurting. Grief needs expression, just as happiness does – both emotions need equal expression. We have to experience our grief, talk about it and share it to help reduce the weight of it. Grievers don’t need to be agreed with or understood. They just need you to listen and accept their words without analysing or justifying them. When a griever is talking about how their loss has made them feel, they are making a statement.

4. Listen

Grievers don’t need to be fixed, just listened to. Be a great listener. Allow for little silences in the conversation so they feel heard and for thoughts to form.

Try not to say, “Let me know if you need anything”.  They won’t. Instead try putting your words into action in a gentle way …  “I’d like to cook a casserole for you. Is Wednesday a good day for you?” or “I’m shopping on Saturday, what can I get for you?”. These practical offers are incredibly helpful to a griever. Offer a specific time for errands, dog walking, mowing the lawn etc. Practical help can say so much more than words and can take the pressure off worrying about saying the wrong thing.

Try not to say “I know how you feel”. You don’t. Grief is a uniquely personal experience.

Never start a sentence with, “At least ….”.

Don’t just be there in the early days and disappear when it looks as if life has returned to normal. It hasn’t. Keep in touch, keep talking and keep sharing.

Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ

Further reading

What is anticipatory or imagined grief?

Overcoming grief through meditation and self-compassion

Identifying complicated and unresolved grief

Bereavement counselling helped my whole family

Supporting your partner after baby loss