It is hard to know what to say to a loved one going through bereavement, so many of us say nothing at all. What can you say or do to support someone you care about that is grieving the death of someone they were close to?
Grief support Tip 1: acknowledge the gravity of their loss, today
It is never better to delay contacting someone who is grieving. If you’re reading this article for advice, contact the bereaved person right now. If you do nothing else, acknowledging their loss is the most valuable action you can take if you are someone they cherish in their life.
While it can be one of the hardest conversations you’ll ever have, putting it off will not make it easier for you or them, and can leave the bereaved feeling confused in amongst a whole range of other emotions. In talking about grief recently with a friend of mine, she shared her immense feeling of guilt in avoiding supporting a friend experiencing bereavement in her time of need years ago.
“I was so petrified of calling a very dear but many years estranged childhood friend of mine that had lost her young adult son that I simply never called. As time went by, it got harder to know what to say and how to explain my complete neglect of her need for comfort at the time. It has been years now and I still feel anxious about not having called. All my avoidance has done is make me feel like I’ve really let someone down – and chances are, I did.”
If you’re terrified of knowing what to say take a moment to think about how they must be feeling. Just call, or if they’re geographically close by, go and see them. You may not know what to say but at least give voice to the gravity of their loss.
Grief support Tip 2: Listen like you’ve never listened before
The moments that you offer your comfort and support to someone who has lost a loved one are moments that are all about them, not you. This is not the time to reflect on your loss, or someone else’s bereavement or terminal illness. This is definitely not the time to vent about something less profound that is happening in your life, unless the bereaved person has asked after you.
This is the time to listen like you’ve never listened before. Giving someone your full attention will often help them open up to you at a deeper level. If they want to talk, let them talk. If they don’t feel like talking, ask them if they would like you to just stay a while with them. If they ask you to leave, don’t take it personally, leave and offer for them to call you if they need anything at all.
If the bereaved is someone who finds comfort in physical contact, a hug can feel soothing. If they’ve never been a ‘hugging’ type, now is not the time to force physical contact on them. But do ask them if a hug would help.
Grief support Tip 3: Be honest with how you feel
Keeping the lines of communication open can only happen if you are both being honest with one another. It is absolutely okay to tell the bereaved person – once you’ve acknowledged their loss – how you feel. Sharing that you really don’t know what to say can be comforting for someone who has lost a loved one through bereavement. They may be feeling exhausted from grief, and may not be inviting an extended moment together.
Grief support Tip 4: Ask what you can do to help
Don’t arrange a roster of meals for delivery by friends and family without speaking to the bereaved person first.
“I had five lasagnes delivered to my front door in the second week after my wife passed away. While the delivery of food was well intended, I was desperate for the distraction of daily routine. Cooking dinner gave me the reflective time alone that I was craving in among the chaos of dealing with grief and all that goes with it.”
Ask your loved one what assistance might help them through the coming week. Don’t start planning too far ahead in to the future. A grieving person may only have the emotional energy to be in each moment. If in doubt when offering assistance to someone who is grieving, just ask them.
Human Services offers payments, counselling and financial services to help people adjust to loss. If your loved one needs pragmatic assistance, visit Human Services > Customer > Subjects > What to do following a death to help provide practical guidance.
Grief support Tip 4: Understand the grieving process is different for everyone
Everyone experiences loss in a deeply personal way. However, it is helpful to understand that the emotions experienced through the grieving process seems to be universally consistent but not in an applied, sequential timeframe of phases. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the five stages of grief commonly referenced.
If you’re planning on continuing to support your bereaved loved one through their grief, find out more about the grieving process to deepen your understanding of what to expect.
Grief support Tip 5: Continue offering love and support for the longer term
The lead up to a funeral or memorial service is intense for everyone impacted by the loss of a loved one. Grieving is a life-long process and your loved one will value your continued support in the weeks, months and years following the sad formalities.
“I lost my beautiful cousin unexpectedly six months ago. Despite trying to check in with my Aunt and Uncle by phone, our timing didn’t always work out. When I did finally get in contact with my Aunt six months after attending my cousin’s funeral, she shared how grateful she was for knowing that people were still keeping them in their thoughts half a year on. She also shared that her emotions changed hourly and a thoughtful phone call can often be exactly what she needs for comfort.”
Helpful resources to support a loved one through bereavement
The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement