When your loved one is grieving

4 min read

How to help someone in grief

  • Realize what they need from you right now might be different than usual. And it might be to be left alone.

  • Ask them what they need, and do that. If they don't know, read the cues they are giving.

  • Offering to take practical tasks off their hands is often the best thing you can do to help.

  • When they want it, giving them space to feel their own feelings is crucial, even when it goes against our most compassionate instincts.

When someone you love is grieving, you might be unsure of what to say, what to do, or how best to show up for them while they mourn the loss of their loved one. Even though the person who passed away might not have had the same impact on your life, they were important to someone close to you, which can make this a difficult time for you as well.

Grief is a state of mind that often feels all-encompassing. It settles into our daily routines in unexpected ways, which is why dealing with someone else’s emotional turmoil is complex. 

Whether the person in grief is your spouse, a close friend, or a family member you spend lots of time with, you want to support them in any and every way possible. The question is how to do that—and there is typically a completely different answer for every individual and every relationship. It might even be a different answer on different days, or even each hour. 

Your loved one might need a different kind of support from you than they usually do.

The most important things that will get you and your loved one through this time are openness and compassion. Communication is going to be crucial, and it’s not always easy. But when you approach the coming days from a place of love, your loved one will feel lucky to have you by their side. 

Listen to what they need

A key to understanding this complicated emotional puzzle is to realize that your loved one might need a different kind of support from you than they usually do—and they might not have a clear idea of how to ask for it. So you may need to be the one to ask instead. 

When a loved one comes to you in their grief, simply ask: How can I be there for you right now? If they say, Just let me cry on your shoulder in silence, put your arm around them and let them feel their own feelings, without trying to get them to talk or offering your own comments. If they need a distraction, put on their favorite movie or their comfort TV show. If they want to share memories of the person, listen.

Even if someone answers that they aren’t sure what they want or how you can show up for them in the moment, try to read between the lines. If they’re quiet and reflective, perhaps suggest a walk or a hike to give them room to think. If they seem to want to talk things through, ask if they’d like you to voice opinions and suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

Even if they are wrapped up in their own emotions at the moment, you know this person well. So trust your instincts on how you can help, and adjust based on their reactions.

Offer to take things off their plate

Feeling overwhelmed is another effect of grief you might notice in your loved one. They are most likely trying to balance their everyday responsibilities and relationships with their need to take space for themselves.

This is where you can come in and help out in small, practical ways. Maybe you can offer to take care of a meal (or two, or all of them) or free up their mornings by getting the kids off to school. If you’re their spouse, maybe you can suggest that they take large chunks of time for themselves, even whole days, when you will take on the responsibilities of the household altogether. 

Be mindful of your own capacity during this time (two emotionally worn-out people is not better than one), but do as much as you can. They’ll thank you for it. 

Give them that space 

Space is hard for some of us to give when we’re concerned about someone we love—but it’s often exactly what they need. If you feel your loved one retreating from conversations or responsibilities, it may be because they need more room to process their own emotions

While it might go against our instincts, we have to let our loved ones have this time. Tell them you’ll be there for them when they need you, and then let them be. It’s essential for their mental health in the long run, and giving them space might ultimately allow them to work through their emotions more efficiently. 

Think small

It can be tempting to help cheer them up by waxing philosophical about how everything will be alright, or to suggest grand gestures like a vacation to take their mind off things. But that’s often not what a grieving person is looking for. What they really need are small moments with genuine care behind them. Often, just knowing they can lean on you when they need to is enough. 

Promise them your love and support, and then act on those offers when they reach out to you or when you can tell they are in need. The most important thing to remember during this time is never to add extra stress to their lives; they have a lot going on, and you will help them the most by being a part of their relief ●