There are few things in life harder to face than the loss of a close friend or family member. And even when you are not the one facing a loss, it can be challenging to know how to help a friend in grief.
As an individual and couples therapist team, we get a lot of questions about what to say to a grieving friend. Just as often, we get questions about what not to say to someone who is grieving.
We all want to help our loved ones and provide the support they need during hard times. But if we’ve never faced a similar loss – or we just don’t feel comfortable with such heart wrenching emotions – it can be easier said than done.
To help you determine the best way to comfort a grieving friend, we’re answering the most common questions our team at Couples Learn gets about supporting someone through grief.
How to Help a Friend in Grief
What are things you should say to a friend who is grieving the death of a friend or family member?
One important thing to keep in mind when figuring out how to help a friend in grief is that everyone grieves differently. There is no “normal” reaction to grief, so the most helpful thing you can do is normalize their feelings and let them know you are there for them.
If you’re wondering what to say to a grieving friend, things like “I am so sorry you are going through this.” or “I know this is really hard” or “I wish I could make this all go away so that you wouldn’t be feeling this pain” are often helpful.
Many people find it uncomfortable to just sit with someone who is in pain, so they try to make the sad feelings go away by saying things like “cheer up” or “think of the bright side.” But these are great examples of what not to say to a grieving friend.
What they really need is for you to just be with them in sadness and allow them to feel what they are feeling.
Is there such a thing as saying something too soon?
No. People always appreciate knowing that they have your support even if they don’t want it in the moment. Don’t be pushy about being there if they seem to need space, but let them know you are there if they want to talk.
Oftentimes, the best way to comfort a grieving friend is to simply let them know you are there for them – whenever and however they need you.
What are some activities you can do with a friend grieving a death that could be a helpful distraction?
Wondering how to help a friend in grief by doing something with them? Any normal activity they might enjoy is probably a good choice. Go for a walk, see a movie, watch your favorite TV shows together, do an arts and crafts project, go to a workout class…anything where you spend quality time together is great.
Just being present is enough most of the time. If your friend has unfinished business with the deceased, you can recommend he/she write a letter to that person saying everything they would want to say if that person were still alive. Offer to listen to the letter and respond in a loving way.
But remember – don’t push activities and outings if what your friend really needs is more time to simply sit in their sadness.
Are there comments that should be avoided?
We all want to be careful about what not to say to someone who is grieving. While some of this is personal to the person you’re hoping to comfort, there are some common things to avoid.
For example, try to avoid religious comments if you know the person grieving does not believe in God or religion. People don’t want to feel like you are pushing your beliefs on them, especially in times of grief.
Also avoid saying “everything happens for a reason.” This is NOT a comforting thought after losing a loved one even if it is something you know that person believes to be true in other situations.
Lastly, avoid telling the person to cheer up or feel better. Let them be sad and just sit with them in their sadness.
How to Help a Friend in Grief? Understand The Stages of Grief
Grief is like a roller coaster. It comes and goes, often at the most unexpected and inopportune times. Many times when someone is alone in the shower or in the car, grief will hit them hard and they will start crying uncontrollably.
Everyone is different and everyone goes through the process in their own unique way. That being said, there are 5 stages of grief that most people experience. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
When you’re trying to figure out what to say to a grieving friend – or what not to say – it’s important to understand these stages.
When first informed of a loved one’s death, most people go through a phase where they deny that it has actually happened. They may say things like “this can’t be happening. It just doesn’t feel real.” This is a defense mechanism that helps them get through the initial shock of the loss. It’s often at this stage that people feel particularly lost when it comes to how to help a friend in grief.
This can manifest as anger towards God, towards those responsible for the death, towards oneself for not acting differently, or even towards the lost loved one for causing them pain. Anger is an easier emotion to handle than sadness thus it can help your loved one ease the pain of the loss and feel less vulnerable for a time.
During the bargaining stage your friend might say things like “I would give anything to get him back” or “I wish it were me instead” or “if only we got him medical attention sooner.” He or she might even try to make deals with God or a higher power in order to ease the pain or reverse what has been done.
When your friend is ready, he/she will start to feel the pain of the loss. Depression can vary in intensity and often manifests itself through crying, sadness, loss of interest in things he/she used to enjoy, lack of energy, and changes in appetite (eating more or less than usual).
In this stage, your friend will start to return to a more normal state. They will be able to talk about the loss or memories of their loved one without experiencing extreme anguish and they will begin to move on with their life. As mentioned above, everyone grieves differently so there is no right or wrong amount of time that it takes someone to reach this stage.
Though it used to be thought that these stages are experienced in a specific order, it is now known that people go in and out of each stage with little to no rhyme or reason. This is important to remember when figuring out how to help a friend in grief.
Your friend may experience depression one day, anger the next, and be bargaining with God just minutes later. The best thing you can do is normalize their feelings throughout the process and provide a loving, non-judgmental space for them to express what they are going through.
How to Help a Friend in Grief When Your Comfort Is Not Enough
When we see a friend who is grieving, we all wish there were ways we could help. But even with the advice outlined in this post, there may be times when our love, our words and our comfort are just not enough.
One of the best ways to comfort a grieving friend is to help them get the help they need. If your friend expresses interest in finding a therapist, offer them encouragement to find a professional who can help them.