Watching someone you care about experience tragedy can be heart wrenching in itself. As much as you want to lessen their emotional load, you might find yourself lacking words or clear ways to help. At times, you may be so unsure of what to do… that you’re faced with doing nothing at all.
But while finding ways to provide support might be less obvious after the time to send flowers or sit shiva has passed, there are ways you can continue to show up and be a source of strength for someone who’s in emotional pain. Below are seven ways to console a friend who’s grieving.
1. Anticipate practical ways you can help out
While it might seem helpful to give your friend the open offer of "call me if you need anything" and leave it at that, remember that the lives of those who are grieving have been totally flipped upside down. At this point, they are likely overwhelmed with processing reality and will have a hard time identifying what they need, let alone asking for it.
Instead, to the extent you're comfortable, try anticipating their practical needs and make solid, concrete offers accordingly. If you're still not sure how to help, pick and choose what's feasible for you from these:
- Accompanying your friend to a bereavement group, and continuing to do so until they feel comfortable going alone
- Swinging by one morning a week to take their trash to the curb
- Coming by to walk their dog, or dropping off pet food every two weeks
The aim here isn't to overextend yourself, but rather to help your friend out in non-invasive, practical ways so that they can focus on staying emotionally afloat.
2. Learn about the grieving process
If you yourself have never experienced the grief your friend is going through, you might struggle to relate. Doing research into the grieving process can help you empathize with where their head (and heart) is at.
To get started, consider watching the video below. It illustrates how grief is not something that we simply "get over," but rather, something that touches every part of our lives until we have the capacity to expand our life further.
You may also find it helpful to read, watch, or listen to first-person narratives of grief like the TED Talk below, reminding us that we don't "move on" after tremendous loss, we move forward and carry the grief with us.
3. Schedule recurring visits with your friend
Putting “dates” on the calendar for your grieving friend might be helpful. At the minimum, it pushes them to be social with you; at most, it’s a motivation to leave the house and get some fresh air.
Note that these don’t have to be activity-heavy dates. Opt for low-pressure hangouts, like:
- Scheduling time to go to a movie
- Visiting a museum together
- Attending a weekend yoga class
Even having your friend over for dinner or going to their apartment to catch a favorite show can sustain a much-needed sense of normalcy and stability.
The weekends are great times to do this, since all that free time can feel daunting to someone who’s worried about facing 48 hours of undistracted melancholy. (Chances are, they're also an easier time for both of your schedules.)
And when the holidays roll around, remember they may prove particularly trying because they invite comparisons to previous years. Inviting your friend to join you for your own family holiday or organizing a group celebration means they won’t have to face saddening milestones alone.
4. Remain patient and compassionate
For many, part of the grieving process entails retelling how their loved one died. They may need to talk about it multiple times, and in a detailed manner.
If your friend does choose to open up to you, remain patient and compassionate. Each time they retell the story, it can help lessen their pain and move them forward in the bereavement process.
Listen with an interested attitude and an open heart. There may be details that seem unimportant to you, but which are of utmost importance to the grief-stricken person. By being receptive, you’re granting them a crucial space to understand their own grief and move forward.
And after your friend opens up to you, follow up afterwards to see how they're doing. You could visit, call, FaceTime, or send a simple "I'm here for you" text. There's no limit on how long you can follow up, either – everyone grieves differently, and it can take anywhere from one to five years to emotionally understand the particulars of a loss.
5. Help connect them with useful resources
If you think your friend might be open to therapy, grief counseling, support groups, or literature surrounding their type of loss, think through a few ways you can help link them with the appropriate resources.
For example, you might:
- Email them the name of a few therapists who were recommended to you, or who you found through an online search. (On Zencare, you can find therapists for grief and loss in New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and Rhode Island.)
- Text them the details of support groups and offer to drive them there or go with them.
- Leave them a few books about healing from the grieving process. Some good picks are The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief by Joanne Cacciatore, and Sheryl Sandberg's and Adam Grant's Plan B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.
Note that universally all therapists have experience helping a client through grief. However, those with additional grief training and certification have a better grasp of the grief process from start to finish.
6. Ask your friend how you can help
When you aren’t sure if your efforts are helping, or want to know what your friend needs most at this time, the best way to find out may be to simply ask.
When the timing is appropriate, try one of the following phrasings:
- “I know you’re going through a really rough time, and I want to help out but I’m not sure what would be best. Is there anything you can think of that I could take off your plate?”
- “Grief takes time, I’m sure that everyone’s told you some version of that in the past few days. Since I want to be helpful and not a cliché, I’m wondering what you honestly need right now, because I want to be here for you.”
- “I can appreciate you’re in a lot of pain, and I’m here for you – whatever you need! Please let me know what would be helpful for you.”
Note that (as mentioned above) in the fog of grief, your friend might not actually know how you can help. That’s okay – you can keep helping in the same ways you have been, and when something else occurs to you, you can move forward with that, too.
7. Set aside time for your own self-care
When helping a grieving friend through a tough time, some of the weight of grief might fall onto you. If you start to feel drained by emotional residue, make sure you're taking care of your physical and mental health needs as well.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to make sure that you’re in a firm place for supporting your friend:
- Do I find myself excessively worrying about my friend at various times throughout the day, like the middle of the night or when I’m in conversations with other people?
- Am I able to still feel happiness in my own life, even after supporting my hurting friend?
- Is consoling my friend bringing up painful memories of my own loss and grief experiences?
If any of these questions resonate with you, secure ways to stay on top of your own mental health, too. After all, you’re only able to console your friend to the fullest potential when you’re in a healthy mindset and well-being.
With these tips in mind, finding the most productive way to console your grieving friend may feel a little less intimidating. Always remember, your desire to support comes from a place of love, kindness, and a deep sense of friendship – all of which will shine through to your friend and hopefully offer a glimmer of tranquility along the path of grief.