Humans are social creatures. We are wired to connect, to work toward common goals and to support each other.
When people around us experience joyful moments, big or small—they had a baby, started a new job, paid off a debt or got good news from the doctor—we may feel inclined to congratulate them and want to celebrate with them.
When someone is struggling, however, you might want to help but not know how. Grief is especially difficult to navigate, because nearly everyone shares grief but experiences it differently. And grief can be incredibly isolating, which is more reason to reach out to someone who is going through a tough time.
People grieve not only over the death of a loved one, but also for any loss: a job, a home, a relationship. But because a death is final, bereavement can be particularly painful.
To better understand how to help, UNC Health clinical psychologist Justin Yopp, PhD, shares three tips for supporting someone who is grieving.
1. Don’t ignore the pain or minimize what has happened.
If someone in your life is experiencing loss, avoid acting as if nothing happened or hoping the person can forget about the pain.
“It’s natural for us to want to take away the pain when people we care about are grieving,” Dr. Yopp says, “but minimizing the pain won’t help. Appreciate that this is a hard time for them.”
Take cues from the person who is grieving, he says. Some people may want to talk about their memories. Others may find talking about their loved one too painful. You can say, “I’m sorry this is such a hard time. I’m here for you if you want to talk about it,” and let them decide.
Fresh or severe grief might make it too hard for someone to socialize, “but if you notice that they don’t want to be around family or attend social events, that’s something to pay attention to,” Dr. Yopp says.
The grief may overlap with depression, and isolation can make it worse. If someone is grieving and isolating from loved ones, check in on that person and express your love and support.
An important note about grieving children: Sometimes adults think that children don’t want to talk about their loved one. Don’t make that assumption. Just as with adults, let the child take the lead, Dr. Yopp says.
“Avoid not talking about it,” he says. “If the child is not talking about their feelings, don’t assume they are OK. That may not be the case.”
2. Recognize that presence is more important than saying the “right” thing.
There’s nothing you can say or do to ease someone’s grief, but your presence can give a sense of being loved and cared for. Resist the urge to try to “fix” a person’s pain or talk about how grief has affected you. Focus on listening.
“What people need is not advice about what they should do or stories about when you lost someone. Let them take the lead,” Dr. Yopp says. “And if you end up just sitting there and sharing space with them, that may be the exact right message. You’re showing them that you’re there for them.”
Sometimes, just being there doesn’t feel as though you’re doing enough—but it can be enough, Dr. Yopp says. And “being there” can mean lots of things: sitting with the person, showing up with a meal, attending the funeral or sending a note.
“There’s that old adage, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something,’” he says. “This is the inverse: ‘Don’t do anything, just sit there.’ People who are grieving aren’t looking for someone to make it OK. It just helps to have someone there.”
3. Don’t make them figure out what you can do for them.
People often say this well-meaning phrase to grievers: “Please let me know if I can do anything for you.”
This isn’t terribly helpful, Dr. Yopp says, because “people often find it hard to ask for favors.”
If you know the grieving person well, you might offer specific help such as grocery shopping or picking up the kids from school. If you are close and it feels appropriate, you can encourage the person to join in social activities with family and friends.
“If you know them really well, tell them you are taking them to dinner or a concert,” Dr. Yopp says. “That can work with a lot of folks.” But not all, of course. Don’t force the issue, he says, and don’t make the person feel bad about grieving.