How to help someone who is bereaved

It is often hard to know what to say to someone who has recently been bereaved, and with social distancing and people forced into self-isolation, it can be even harder to know how to help.

Along with the advice below, some if which is still appropriate, the following charities have published guidance on how best to support bereaved friends and family during this time:

Helping someone who is bereaved

At a Loss– containing a useful video and a question and answer section

Marie Curie– containing useful videos, information and links to external websites

Cruse Bereavement Care– advice on what to say to people who are bereaved as well as further internal resources

Sometimes when I say I’m OK, I want someone to look me in the eyes, HUG me tight and say ‘I know you’re not’.

What can you say to help someone who is bereaved?
There are no words, but people want to say something, anything that might help, but even though they are offered with the best of intentions, there is little comfort to be found. Perhaps the most meaningful words you could say are by Dr Bill Webster, “no one has the perfect words to make your sadness go away, but you may feel comfort in knowing how many people wish they did.”

Here are some practical suggestions to help a friend or relative who has recently been bereaved:

Keep in contact
Make a special effort to keep in contact after the funeral.  Visits and telephone calls are helpful.  Loss can make someone feel very lonely.

Be a good listener
Let the bereaved person talk about what they want.  Allow them to talk about the person who has died and listen attentively.  Don’t worry if the conversation leads to either or both of you crying, this is perfectly natural and normal.

Don’t make assumptions
All bereavements are different and people mourn their loss in their own way.  Don’t make assumptions as to how they will be feeling.  Avoid saying, ‘I know how you feel’. Encourage them to express their own feelings – whatever they are – they may be worried, angry, feeling guilty or even relieved.  Try to understand their feelings and do not judge.

The importance of touch
Bereaved people often feel isolated and miss the warmth of human contact.  It may help to hold their hand, put your arm around them or simply place a hand on their shoulder or elbow.  Obviously use your discretion, it may not be appropriate for all people, but touch can be a very effective way of affirming friendship and letting them know you’re there for them.

Offer practical help
If you can see that they are in need, offer to help – or suggest where help could be obtained.  Do not wait to be asked.  Many find the simplest things too much.  Domestic chores, cooking, paying bills or organising repairs can seem insignificant but if ignored can lead to challenging or serious problems.  Remember, don’t make assumptions – your offer of help may be declined, but you could always offer again another time.

Professional help
If necessary refer to professionals for bereavement support.  If you notice a serious problem developing – e.g. over use of alcohol or drugs, serious self-neglect, malnutrition, total inertia or violent mood swings – you could express your concerns to their doctor or, if they belong to a religious group, their minister or priest. They will listen and may be able to help in a way that you cannot.   You may feel it appropriate to ask for their permission first, especially to contact their doctor, but remember that they have a duty of confidentiality to the bereaved person.

Allow plenty of time
Grieving is a process which changes over the weeks, months and years, but your support will still be valuable.  Anniversaries such as birthdays, a wedding anniversary, Christmas and the anniversary of the death are particularly difficult and it will help if you are aware of these events.

The 10 best things to say to someone in grief by Dr Bill Webster

  1. I am so sorry for your loss.
  2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
  3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.
  4. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
  5. My favourite memory of your loved one is…
  6. I am always just a phone call away.
  7. Give a hug instead of saying something.
  8. We all need help at times like this, I am here for you.
  9. I am usually up early or late, if you need anything.
  10. Saying nothing, just be with the person.