What Is Grief?
Grief is an emotion – a natural response to loss – and the emotional pain felt when something or someone is taken away from their loved one. Most people associate grief with the death of a loved person, but grief can be the result of many different situations. These situations can include:
- Pet Loss
- Loss of a long-loved dream
- Loss of a friendship
- Serious illness of a loved one
- Becoming chronically ill
- Breakup of a romantic relationship
- Losing a job
The greater and more profound the loss, the more intense the feelings of grief may be. It’s important to remember that even the smallest of losses can lead to grieving – moving to another city, graduating high school, changing jobs, retiring – these are all events that can lead to grief.
To read more about grief, please visit our grief resources.
Losing a loved one – be it a friend, family member, beloved pet, or a child – is one of the most challenging parts of life. No matter how natural death is, the grief associated with losing a loved one comes with very strong emotions like depression, guilt, and anger. Many times, those who have lost a loved one feel both alone and socially isolated from the rest of the world, which is why it’s so important to have someone to lean on during the grieving process.
Knowing the stages of grief will help you understand some of the things they are feeling: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Also knowing that there is no timeline on grief, that it can take a year or ten or forever, will help you understand the person you are trying to comfort.
What Are Some Common Signs Of Grief?
Losses and grief are as individual as the person experiencing it, but often, the emotions that are associated with grief and loss can be confusing, overwhelming, and scary. Here are some of the most common signs and feelings associated with grief and grieving:
Guilt – many people who are grieving report feeling guilty for things left unsaid to the deceased. Others may feel guilt if they are relieved that their loved one has passed from a chronic illness. Still others may feel guilt for not preventing the death – even if the death wasn’t preventable.
Shock – in the immediate time frame after a loss, many people feel shock and disbelief that their loved one has actually died. This may lead to feelings of numbness, disbelief that the death is real, and an inability to accept the truth.
Sadness – one of the most common signs of grief is an overwhelming sadness. Someone who is grieving may feel lonely, empty inside, despairing, or emotionally unstable.
Anger – whether or not the death was not anyone’s fault, many people feel anger and resentment after a loss. This anger may be directed at the deceased, yourself, God, the doctors who didn’t prevent the loss.
Fear – a large loss can trigger many fears and worries, anxiety and insecurity. Many people report panic attacks after the death of a loved one. The death of someone you love can remind you of your own mortality and make you wonder how you can face your life without that person.
How To Support Someone Who’s Grieving:
The death of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult experiences. The bereaved struggle with many intense and painful emotions, including depression, anger, guilt, and profound sadness. Often, they feel isolated and alone in their grief, but having someone to lean on can help them through the grieving process.
The intense pain and difficult emotions that accompany bereavement can often make people uncomfortable about offering support to someone who’s grieving. You may be unsure what to do or worried about saying the wrong thing at such a difficult time. That’s understandable. But don’t let discomfort prevent you from reaching out to someone who is grieving. Now, more than ever, your loved one needs your support. You don’t need to have answers or give advice or say and do all the right things. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there. It’s your support and caring presence that will help your loved one cope with the pain and gradually begin to heal.
The keys to helping a loved one who’s grieving
- Don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out
- Let your grieving loved one know that you’re there to listen
- Understand that everyone grieves differently and for different lengths of time
- Offer to help in practical ways
- Maintain your support after the funeral
1) Helping a grieving person: Understand the grieving process
The better your understanding of grief and how it is healed, the better equipped you’ll be to help a bereaved friend or family member:
Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair, and fear are common. A grieving person may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at loved ones, or cry for hours on end. Your loved one needs reassurance that what they feel is normal. Don’t judge them or take their grief reactions personally.
No right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages. It can be an emotional ride, with unpredictable highs, lows, and setbacks. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling your loved one what they “should” be feeling or doing.
No set timetable for grieving. For many people, recovery after bereavement takes 18 to 24 months, but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter. Don’t pressure your loved one to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow the healing process.
2) Know what to say to someone who’s grieving
While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person, it’s actually more important to listen. Oftentimes, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or change the subject when the deceased person is mentioned. But the bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and their loved one won’t be forgotten. By listening compassionately, you can take your cues from the grieving person.
How to talk—and listen—to someone who’s grieving
While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let your grieving friend or loved one know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk about their loss. Talk candidly about the person who died and don’t steer away from the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. And when it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions—without being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express their feelings. By simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?” you’re letting your loved one know that you’re available to listen.
You can also:
Acknowledge the situation. For example, you could say something as simple as: “I heard that your father died.” By using the word “died” you’ll show that you’re more open to talk about how the grieving person really feels.
Express your concern. For example: “I’m sorry to hear that this happened to you.”
Let the bereaved talk about how their loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens. By listening patiently and compassionately, you’re helping your loved one heal.
Ask how your loved one feels. The emotions of grief can change rapidly so don’t assume you know how the bereaved person feels at any given time. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. Remember, though, that grief is an intensely individual experience. No two people experience it exactly the same way, so don’t claim to “know” what the person is feeling or compare your grief to theirs. Again, put the emphasis on listening instead, and ask your loved one to tell you how they’re feeling.
Accept your loved one’s feelings. Let the grieving person know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn’t feel. Grief is a highly emotional experience, so the bereaved need to feel free to express their feelings—no matter how irrational—without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
Be genuine in your communication. Don’t try to minimize their loss, provide simplistic solutions, or offer unsolicited advice. It’s far better to just listen to your loved one or simply admit: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. Often, comfort for them comes from simply being in your company. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Offer your support. Ask what you can do for the grieving person. Offer to help with a specific task, such as helping with funeral arrangements, or just be there to hang out with or as a shoulder to cry
3) Offer practical assistance
It is difficult for many grieving people to ask for help. They might feel guilty about receiving so much attention, fear being a burden to others, or simply be too depressed to reach out. A grieving person may not have the energy or motivation to call you when they need something, so instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” make it easier for them by making specific suggestions. You could say, “I’m going to the market this afternoon. What can I bring you from there?” or “I’ve made beef stew for dinner. When can I come by and bring you some?”
If you’re able, try to be consistent in your offers of assistance. The grieving person will know that you’ll be there for as long as it takes and can look forward to your attentiveness without having to make the additional effort of asking again and again.
There are many practical ways you can help a grieving person. You can offer to:
- Shop for groceries or run errands
- Drop off a casserole or other type of food
- Help with funeral arrangements
- Stay in your loved one’s home to take phone calls and receive guests
- Help with insurance forms or bills
- Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
- Watch their children or pick them up from school
- Drive your loved one wherever they need to go
- Look after your loved one’s pets
- Go with them to a support group meeting
- Accompany them on a walk
- Take them to lunch or a movie
- Share an enjoyable activity (sport, game, puzzle, art project)
4) Provide ongoing support
Your loved one will continue grieving long after the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have stopped. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person, but often lasts much longer than most people expect. Your loved one may need your support for months or even years.
Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with the grieving person, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Once the funeral is over and the other mourners are gone, and the initial shock of the loss has worn off, your support is more valuable than ever.
Don’t make assumptions based on outward appearances. The bereaved person may look fine on the outside, while inside they’re suffering. Avoid saying things like “You are so strong” or “You look so well.” This puts pressure on the person to keep up appearances and to hide their true feelings.
The pain of bereavement may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same. You don’t “get over” the death of a loved one. The bereaved person may learn to accept the loss. The pain may lessen in intensity over time, but the sadness may never completely go away.
Offer extra support on special days. Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend or family member. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever they need.
5) Watch for warning signs of depression
It’s common for a grieving person to feel depressed, confused, disconnected from others, or like they’re going crazy. But if the bereaved person’s symptoms don’t gradually start to fade—or they get worse with time—this may be a sign that normal grief has evolved into a more serious problem, such as major depressive disorder.
Encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if you observe any of the following warning signs after the initial grieving period—especially if it’s been over two months since the death.
- Difficulty functioning in daily life
- Extreme focus on the death
- Excessive bitterness, anger, or guilt
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Inability to enjoy life
- Withdrawing from others
- Constant feelings of hopelessness
- Talking about dying or suicide
How To Cope With Grieving:
The greater the loss you’ve experienced, the greater the emotional pain and turmoil that you’re likely to experience, although it’s important to remember that even the most minor situations can lead to feelings of grief and grieving.
Here are some tips for coping with grief and grieving:
- Grief is a completely natural response to the loss of something you loved.
- When you are grieving, you may want to isolate yourself from the rest of the world. Do not do this. Make sure that you work hard to let people know that you’re struggling and how they can help you.
- Ask for help – even if it’s something as simple as picking up some groceries or bringing over dinner, it’s important to ask for help when you need it. Most people want to help someone who is grieving, but may not know how.
- Not everyone grieves on the same timetable. What may be “nothing” to someone else can be a major blow to you – so don’t expect more of yourself. Allow yourself the time and space to grieve your loss.
- Be patient with yourself. Even if you think you “should” be better by now, getting through the grieving process isn’t something that can happen simply because you want it to happen.
- Do not ignore your emotional pain. While it may feel easier to stifle the pain, push it way down there, this is not a healthy way to handle grief and loss. In order to heal, we must face our losses head-on and cope with the grief.
- Don’t hide your true feelings by putting on a mask of “strength.” You’re not protecting other people from your pain in doing so – you’re denying it – and that’s something you don’t need to do.
- There are no right or wrong ways to cope with grief and grieving – only the way you feel.
- Grief is a very personal experience, which means that it’s different for everyone.
- The manner in which you grieve may depend on other factors, such as your personality type, coping mechanisms, life experiences, nature of the loss, and your faith.
- Not everyone cries while grieving, which does NOT mean that if you don’t cry, you’re not sad. Everyone copes with grief in their own way.
- Lean on other people no matter how much it hurts your pride to admit that you’re struggling. Accept all help that’s offered and suggest other things you need help with.
- Find a support group for the bereaved – often grief can isolate us from others, making us feel very alone. This is why it’s vital to find others who are going through similar situations in order to find new ways to cope, feel less alone, and have some shoulders to lean on.
- Find a grief counselor or therapist – often, especially in the case with a significant loss, coping with grief can be too much to handle alone. Find a therapist in your area (or have a friend do so for you) in order to talk to someone about your grief and find ways to cope with the loss.
- Make sure you’re keeping physically healthy. It may seem impossible, but you’re going to have to make sure that you work extra hard to eat well, get plenty of rest, and exercise. Grieving and stress can take a huge toll on the body, so it’s important to take care of your own health.
- Write it out. Or draw it out. Find some way for you to express your feelings in a meaningful manner.
- Never, EVER, allow someone else to tell you how you “should” be feeling or what you “should” be doing. Grief is an individual experience, and what works for you may not work for someone else. Don’t listen to ANYONE who wants to tell you that you’re grieving the wrong way.
- Plan out triggers, like holidays and birthdays, and have a plan for how to handle them. Make plans with friends or plant a tree in your loved one’s honor. Anything but sitting around your house alone, feeling miserable.
When Your Loved One Is Grieving:
For most people, reaching out to someone who is grieving or knowing what to say to them is a very difficult thing to do. This comes naturally for some, but if we’re really honest, it’s awkward and scary for most of us.
One of the main reasons it’s so awkward is that nobody wants to remind someone that they are sad or that they have lost a loved one. If only one thing can be said in this space, it should be said that “You cannot remind someone who has lost a loved one, that they have lost a loved one. They will never forget. YOU are not going to remind them because they carry it with them all the time.”
Never let the discomfort of grief prevent you from reaching out to someone who has lost something they loved – support, no matter what form you can provide – is vital to someone who is grieving. Certainly, you may not know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one – you don’t have to have the answers for the person who is grieving. All that the person needs from you is to have someone there alongside them while they grieve. This can help tremendously with healing and emotional pain associated with loss.
How To Help A Loved One Grieve:
There are ways you can help someone who is grieving, some by talking and some by caring actions. Here are some ways to help a loved one grieve a loss.
- Listen with compassion and love, and don’t hesitate to bring up the name of the person who has died with your loved one. This can help your loved one feel as though the deceased isn’t forgotten and that their loss has been acknowledged.
- Ask your loved one if they feel like talking about their grief – don’t push them to discuss the loss, but let them know that you are there to talk whenever they feel like talking.
- Acknowledge all of the feelings that your loved one has. These feelings and emotions may make no sense to you, but everyone grieves differently.
- Allow the bereaved talk about their loved one as often as they would like, even if they are repeating themselves. Talking about their deceased loved one helps them remember their loved one.
- Don’t be afraid to sit in silence with your loved one. Sometimes, just knowing that someone is there and listening is the very best thing that you can do.
- Offer to help them with normal, daily tasks like picking up groceries, mowing the lawn, paying bills (especially if they have never been the one to do that).
- Take the initiative and help out with daily tasks – many people who are grieving feel intense guilt or shame in asking for help.
- Take them to lunch and remember to call. This is especially important weeks and months later when the visitors and cards have come to a halt.
- Continue being there for your loved one, months and years later. Support dwindles fairly quickly after a loss.
- Pay attention to warning signs for depression or suicide. Make sure the bereaved is taking care of themselves by seeing a doctor, dentist, therapist or other professional. It’s easy to neglect yourself when grieving.
- Know that a squeeze of a hand or a big hug shows you love them and are thinking of them. You don’t always have to have a large conversation, but a small gesture will go a long way.
- Share your stories of their loved one, remember them and celebrate them with the bereaved.
- Be patient and kind with your loved one. Grief is a process, not an event, which means that even if you’re doing the same thing with them over and over, it may be part of their healing process.
- Allow the grieving person discuss how their loved one passed away, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
- Provide comfort without comparing losses. No two losses are alike, so it’s important not to compare the loss of a child to the loss of a pet.
- Understand that the pain of the loss may never fully heal.
- Be there for the grieving person on trigger dates – anniversaries, birthdays, holidays.
What To Say To Someone Who Is Grieving:
It can be uncomfortable to discuss the loss with someone who is grieving. Here are some things to say to someone who is grieving:
- “I’m so very sorry that you lost (name of person)”
- “I heard that (name of person) died.”
- “Tell me how I can help.”
- “How are you feeling?”
- “I’m not sure what to say, but I’m here for you when you need me.”
How Not To Help Someone Who Is Grieving:
Sometimes, even the most well-meaning actions can cause a grieving person to feel worse.
Here are some things NOT to do while trying to help someone who is grieving.
- Don’t invalidate their feelings like telling them not to cry or not to feel guilty. These are normal parts of grieving and should be gone through, not around.
- Do not tell a grieving person how to cope with their grief. It’s not up to you how they feel, and it’s important that the bereaved feels supported, not minimized.
- Don’t minimize their feelings by saying things like, “Well, it was God’s plan.” It’s offensive, rude, and may hurt, rather than help, a grieving individual.
- Don’t push the bereaved to discuss his or her grief if he or she is not ready to discuss it. There’s a fine line between being nosy and being supportive.
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Remember that.
- Don’t offer advice
- There is no timetable for grief and grieving.
- Don’t judge the way someone is handling a loss – unless you’re walking around in their shoes, you have no way of knowing what their feelings are.
- Don’t assume that just because someone who is grieving looks “okay,” that he or she is.
What NOT To Say To Someone Who Is Grieving:
While some of the platitudes we may have heard are often things called upon by those who are attempting to comfort the bereaved, well-meaning comments can often do more harm than good. Here are some things NOT to say to someone who is grieving:
- “It’s part of God’s plan.”
- “(Name of loved one) is in a better place now.”
- “I know just how you feel.”
- “But look at all you have to be thankful for!”
- “It’s time to move on with your life.”
- “You’re wallowing.”
- “You should” or “You will” statements.
Additional Grief and Grieving Resources:
Solace Tree – Helping adults, teens and children cope with the loss of a loved one.
GriefShare is an international website which helps individuals locate local grief recovery support groups in the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.
Post last audited 8/2018