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What’s the Best Way to Help Someone Who’s Grieving?

I am certainly no expert when it comes to giving advice about grief, but I have learned a few things along the way. I’ve started compiling lists of lessons I’ve learned from loss. You can find list one here and list two here. Undoubtedly, more lists will be coming… If I were asked to suggest one piece of advice to help someone who is grieving, I’d be hard pressed to come up with just one thing, but I’d probably have to go with this:

When someone’s loved one has died, one simple thing you can always do which offers so much comfort is allowing the grieving person to talk about their loved one, if they so choose of course.

I don’t know exactly why it is, but many people have the mistaken notion that if we don’t talk about something or someone, maybe we won’t think about it/them quite so much. This is so not true.

Years ago a dear friend of mine gave birth to a full-term, stillborn baby girl. My friend knew her baby was stillborn before the delivery. My friend and her husband named their baby Jenny. They held Jenny. They wept for Jenny. They kept a bit of Jenny’s hair. They had tiny footprints made. They saved whatever precious treasures they could and tucked them away to take out from time to time during all the years ahead in which Jenny would not be physically present. They held a memorial service for Jenny. They grieved deeply then, perhaps they still do.

That was a rough time for me as a friend. I felt completely helpless. Of course I called my friend. I visited her. I took meals to her family. I sat with her. I cried with her. I listened to her lament. I did what I could, always knowing it wasn’t enough, not even close.

One of many things I learned from that experience was that my friend wanted to talk about Jenny and so we did, and not just for a few days or for a few weeks. Jenny remained part of our conversations for a very long time; in fact, sometimes we still speak of her.

I remember one day after a period of time had passed since her loss, my friend confided with me how she felt even more sad when others didn’t talk about Jenny. Talking about the loss was excruciatingly painful, but not talking about it was even worse. It was like erasing Jenny.

I found the same to be true when a dear cousin of mine was killed in a tragic truck accident. The pain I saw in my aunt’s eyes during that time sometimes haunts me still. That loss was decades ago, but I know my aunt still likes to talk about her son from time to time. It’s not like she’s forgotten him. Talking about him helps keep his memory alive.

Ever since my mother died from metastatic breast cancer in 2008, I have come to realize that some of my family members like to talk about her lots and others prefer to talk less, or even not at all. No way is right or better. We are all different in how we grieve.

Yes, we are all different in how we grieve, but giving someone the option to talk about their loved one who has died is almost always welcomed.

All you have to do is ask. All you have to do is listen.

What could be simpler and more compassionate than that?

What would your number one piece of advice be to help someone who is grieving?

Have you ever felt you shouldn’t talk about a loved one of yours who has died?

22 thoughts to “What’s the Best Way to Help Someone Who’s Grieving?”

  1. Thank you for this idea, Nancy. It’s so hard to know what to do when friends and family lose loved ones, but I like your idea of letting them talk. When my grandmother died, people at the wake stood up and told stories – it was very healing. ~Catherine

    1. Catherine, I love it when people share stories about their loved ones at wakes and funerals, but sometimes I think too often we forget how helpful this is weeks, months and even years later as well. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Great, thoughtful and thought-provoking post Nancy.

    I think my main piece of advice builds on yours. If you’re uncomfortable with asking somebody whether they want to talk about their loved one, be prepared to be the bridge. There can be moments in our current lives which take us right back to ‘then’, and we need to be able to talk. So, I guess it’s ‘don’t be squeamish around grief’. You may be the only person that individual can talk with, so don’t push them to squash their pain. Squashed, repressed pain hurts more.

    Take care,

    Casey

  3. Nancy, I do this instinctively. My DH’s first wife died of breast cancer. He and I talk about her (and always have) all the time! I did not know her, but I make a point not to shy away from mentioning her or a story that involves her if it’s appropriate. (DH tends to be more reserved.) It was my way of honoring her. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes people pick up the ball and run with it (telling more stories about her); other times they fall silent. I always follow their lead.

    Thanks for blogging about such an important topic. People need to know this really is the easiest and most helpful way to honor someone who has passed… to give those that loved them space to talk about them and remember them.
    xo

    1. Renn, It’s wonderful and also quite remarkable that you do not shy away from, but actually encourage remembering and honoring you DH’s first wife. This speaks volumes about your character. And yes, taking the lead from someone who’s grieving is always good advice. Thanks so much for reading and sharing.

  4. dear Nancy,

    from the recent and sudden loss of Hugh, from the time I awake until I go to sleep, i am reminded of the absence of his presence – each object in our home, our daily rituals, his touch, his smile, photographs, favorite places he liked to sit – thousands of triggers that flood my mind, and make me feel so very lonely for him. all through the last 3 months since he died, there have been many other crisis – dx’d with uterine
    ca, surgery, now recovery, but not having the final word on what’s next. i feel his loss even more acutely. i have been so fortunate to have many friends nearby, all who knew and adored Hugh. they are exceptional with such caring and understanding, they know that when they share memories, and it spurs me on to do the same, i might feel sad, i might even cry – but sometimes we laugh at his incomparable humor, and they always tell me they knew how much we loved each other, especially during the last 4 years when Hugh was first diagnosed, them me, in the third year. hearing these dear people SAY HIS NAME is so very comforting, and it gives me permission to talk about Hugh, to calm the thoughts that race through my head and end up in a big, raw, aching pile of grief, falling and accumulating from my mind to a very dark and painful heart. i always feel much better, and thank them with all my heart – and it’s that wonderful healing sense of gratitude that allows me to turn more outward and be kind and caring and listen to others who share my plight

    i try to acknowledge our friends and families” loss of Hugh, tell them how much he loved them, share stories that are personal to each individual. i feel good when i can offer them comfort, too.

    much love and gratitude to you, Nancy, for this post. XOXOXOXO,

    Karen, TC

    1. Karen, Your words convey your loss so eloquently – and yes, thousands of triggers… I imagine there is very little that does not remind you of Hugh. While this is painful, I hope it’s also comforting. Does this make sense? To me it means you shared so much together… I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m grateful you have family and friends who allow you to grieve in your own way. Thank you for sharing, Karen. You are teaching us so much. Love and gratitude back to you.

  5. I visited my friend P last night. Her husband died 5 months ago. We talked and laughed through stories about him all evening. He’s not completely dead as long as his memories are alive.

    1. Marie, I’m glad you felt that “embrace”. Grief can be a very lonely thing, but it doesn’t have to be – not entirely anyway. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  6. I agree that talking about the person who has passed away is often better than not saying anything at all. I prefer to have others ask about my grandma, and I like to talk about her or hear others talk about her.

    There is just that fear of discomfort in our culture. I think we are afraid of saying something that will hurt our grieving family members/friends, so we just don’t say anything. Or, I know I am often unsure of how to appropriately bring it up or how to encourage others to do so without making it awkward.

    1. Lindsay, Our culture is very hesitant to talk about dying, death and grief. It’s really too bad because like always, talking and sharing about it helps all in the long run. I like talking about and listening to others talk about grandma too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. When my aunt died we painted her coffin with all the beautiful flowers she loved… Her grand children, daughters, son-in-laws and myself had the coffin in the garage and over a few drinks told stories and memories as we painted….It was a wonderful experience of being able to mourn openly and respect her memory…

  8. Hi Nancy,

    This is a terrific post and very insightful. I agree that talking about a loved one who has passed away can be so therapeutic to the grieving person. Unfortunately, I come from a family that doesn’t talk about those who have died. There’s not a lot of communication. A few years ago, my brother and his wife delivered a stillborn, full-term son. I felt so helpless. I occasionally try to bring it up, but my brother doesn’t want to focus on this, so I follow his lead. They have since had a healthy baby boy, but I always know they think of the one who didn’t make it.

    1. Beth, My family is much the same. My mom was the real “talker” in the family… I’m sorry about your brother’s loss. I know what you mean about feeling helpless… I think it’s wise to take his lead on talking about that. I’m sure he is grateful knowing you are always there to listen if he should wish to bring up that painful loss and that means an awful lot. Thanks for sharing, Beth.

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