Helping a Bereaved Person
Grieving is difficult — difficult to go through and difficult to witness. But there are ways to help people coping with loss.
What to say to a bereaved person
How to help a bereaved person
- Try to attend the removal or funeral if this is appropriate.
- Take the time to make contact either by writing or by phone. A personal note that expresses your condolences and mentions any fond memories you have of the person who died can be very comforting.
- Express your sympathy in a simple way. Avoid clichés such as ‘it was for the best’, or ‘life goes on’, as they may give offence. Phrases such as ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘you are in my thoughts’ are better. There are no words that will take away the pain.
- Make a brief visit and offer your practical help.
- Don’t avoid a bereaved person out of embarrassment or a fear of upsetting them. They may believe you don’t care enough to sympathise with them.
- Try not to tell them that you know how they feel; you can never truly know how someone else feels.
- Your own losses may be triggered when you talk to a bereaved person, but try not to recount stories of your own or other people’s losses. It is rarely helpful.
As time passes
Most people experience a sense of shock when they are first bereaved. It is difficult to absorb what has happened. Grief may begin with thoughts such as ‘I can’t believe she’s dead’, ‘it all feels like a bad dream’. This numbing sense of shock and disbelief can last days, weeks, or months. Your friend may appear to be coping well as life goes on, but for many bereaved people it is in the months after the death that the full force of what has happened begins to hit them. Everyday tasks from working and parenting to shopping and paying bills become very difficult. This seems to coincide with a time when people who were very supportive at the time of the death stop calling. While friends and neighbours resume their normal lives, bereaved people are facing months and years of reminders of their loss and adjustments they need to make.
Here are some tips for helping a bereaved person as time goes by:
- Don’t assume they are ‘over it’ or have enough help. If you are unsure how to help, just ask.
- Don’t avoid mentioning the person who has died. Most bereaved people welcome the chance to talk. You do not lessen grief by avoiding the subject.
- Don’t offer advice on how they should feel, act, or get on with their lives. Allow them space to make their own decisions.
- Try not to make vague offers of help like ‘call me if you need anything’. Bereaved people may find it hard to reach out and ask for help. Make specific offers of help – cook dinner, cut the grass, go for a walk with them, etc.
- Don’t feel offended if they refuse your offer of help or turn to someone else for comfort.
- Try to remember special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.
- Finally, mind yourself. Supporting a bereaved person is hard work. Know your own limits and only offer to do what you can reasonably do.
What does a person mean when they say they’re ‘fine’? Should we keep asking?
Helping a bereaved person — Do’s and Don’ts
- Acknowledge the loss.
- Care more about the person than your embarrassment.
- Be aware of how bereavement affects people.
- Encourage the person to talk if they want to.
- Acknowledge important anniversaries suitably and sensitively (deaths as well as births, weddings, etc.).
- Don’t minimise the impact of the loss (e.g. ‘you will meet someone else’).
- Don’t reassure when what is needed is permission to share grief.
- Don’t limit the time in which support is given.
- Don’t expect someone to be “back to normal” quickly.
When a child is bereaved
Children’s grief can be very different to grief in adults. Click here for more information about children’s grief.
To understand more about supporting a child who is bereaved, visit the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network.