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Helping Other Adults Cope With Grief

Kathryn Patricelli, MA, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 2nd 2016

women talking outsideIn our relationships, we can also be called upon to support others who are grieving a loss. This can be awkward as many people are unsure what to say or do to be helpful. They worry that they will inadvertently cause additional problems for grieving people by saying or doing the wrong thing. Grief is an individual thing; There really is no set formula for how best to be of service to grieving people. There are, fortunately, principles that can be followed that are most always appropriate.

  • Reaching Out – Many people are hesitant to reach out to those who are grieving and instead choose to wait for the grieving person to ask for assistance. However, the griever may be dealing with so much that he or she is unable to let others know that help is needed. He or she may be ashamed or embarrassed to not be handling everything well on his or her own. Having a family member or friend offer support or encouragement can be very welcome and much needed.

    Help should be offered in the form of specific tasks that the griever may need assistance with, rather than a general "call if you need anything". Grievers are often overwhelmed and not thinking straight, and so may not be able to say what it is they need help with. Would-be helpers can be of greatest service by trying to anticipate what the grieving person needs done, and offering specifically to do those things. Offering to cook, run errands, pick up groceries, clean the house, take care of a pet, etc. are all good examples of specifically helpful things that can be offered.

  • Don't Minimize the Loss – Often people are unsure what to say to those who are grieving. While wanting to make the grieving person feel better, they may actually accomplish the opposite by minimizing the loss, or insinuating that he or she is not behaving as others expect. Avoid using phrases like, "She led a long life and it was her time", "It was God’s plan for him to leave now", "Time heals all wounds", and "She was in such pain, it was probably for the best". These phrases attempt to offer comfort by framing the loss in the context of religion or in terms of the larger perspective. Any attempts of this nature can seem like you are minimizing the fresh and overwhelming loss. Such phrases can easily come off the wrong way, leaving the grieving person angry and feeling that you are insensitive or afraid.

    The best types of comments to make avoid any attempt to frame the loss, and instead, simply comment on the difficult situation, how sorry you are that the loss had to occur, and whether or not you can be of support or help to the grieving person. A heartfelt and simple, "I'm so sorry for your loss", works quite well.

  • Listen – Instead of trying to offer "helpful" comments that run the risk of minimizing the grieving person's experience, you can offer genuine assistance by simply being present and listening to what the grieving person has to say. Many grievers simply need someone to be there to listen to them and allow them to vent their overwhelming emotions. They are likely to need to be heard and witnessed, rather than to have someone try to make them feel better.
  • Don't be Afraid to Mention the Lost Person, Place or Thing – Often people may fear that if they use the deceased person's name or refer to the loss, they may make the griever feel worse. However, many grievers feel better if those around them are not acting as though the person or relationship never existed and that nothing has changed. Acknowledging the loss is frequently beneficial to the grieving process. A corollary bit of advice that goes along with not being afraid to mention names, is to not baby the grieving person, but instead treat them normally. The griever needs to see that others are interacting with them as they always have and not treating them with extra-gentle "kid gloves".
  • Suggest Professional Help – If it becomes clear that a griever is getting stuck in their grieving process, experiencing difficulty processing their loss or having troubling physical symptoms, family members or friends should suggest that the grieving person see a therapist or a medical doctor so as to gain assistance in dealing with their grief.

 

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Helping guide families through time after love one has passed away in the hospital - Rhonda - Apr 30th 2009

I am a RN and work in Intensive Care Unit. I am looking for people to respond to a erasearch quetionaire on how we can better meet the needs of supporting family meembers in the healtcare seting. I have also lost my dad and still find myself picking up the phone and dialing his #, missing him. My strength seems to come from my belief in an afterlife, that he is in heaven and I will see him again. WHat are your thoughts on this? If you would like to participate in respond to my research and help us improve what we do in caring for families, please e-mail me at Donwilt@att.net and I will send you the questions. Thanks for helping me to make a difference

Dealing with Grief - Mavis Symonds - Nov 16th 2008

My mother died three years ago, I saw her the day before but not that morning.  I arrived at the nursing home about half an hour after she had died.  I got to hold her in my arms the day before and encouraged her to let go as she was ninety four, had lost her leg on her 70th birthday because of melanoma, she had suffered so much over the years, and had developed another lesion on  her good leg.  I felt angry that I wasnt there when she had passed, as I had made a pact with my mother that when it was her time she would wait  until I got there (I live about eight hours drive away from her nursing home). It is now three and a half years and I often think that I will give her a call, when I realise that she is no longer here, I close the doors, take the phone of the hook, play some relaxing music and visualise a beautiful garden, I invite her in and let her know how much I love her, and thank her for sharing her life with me. I now realise that the pact we made was broken the day before she died when I held her and encouraged her to leave, I freed her from that pact in the minutes I spent with her preparing her for her journey.  I believe that you do not have to be physically there, if your loved one is in your thoughts and you spend special time remembering them, inviting them in to your quiet time you will be at peace.

regards Mavis

GRIEF AND LOSS - - May 9th 2008

I lost my mother about 5 weeks ago and I did not get to see her before she pass away but the biggest problem is I dont think she is dead I getting thinking she is coming back help!!!!!!!!

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