Supporting someone who is grieving can be a challenge if you don’t know how to go about it. So much so, that many people avoid reaching out or even acknowledging someone’s loss for fear or ‘getting it wrong’. In truth, since grieving is such an intensely personal journey, the rule of ‘less is more’ applies. But you are more likely to offend the avoiding the bereaved person by refusing to acknowledge the loss than you are by offering a simple message of support.
Bereavement and grieving are generally associated with the death of a loved one. This is naturally the most intense kind of grief, but anyone can experience grief following other kinds of loss or change.
Even ‘lesser’ shifts can cause a sense of grief. For example a divorce, serious illness, miscarriage, the failure of a nurtured project, the death of a pet…
Grief reactions can be triggered by any significant alteration to someone’s circumstances. The change doesn’t have to be huge or associated with death. So supporting someone who is grieving can take many forms too, from briefly expressing your condolences, to offering to step in and help with organising, childcare, or other practical help.
Reactions to loss are wide-ranging. Above all, they are unexpected and personal.
Grief is about making the adjustment to new circumstances, and healing following a significant event.
These reactions can take many forms. Sadness, mood changes, and emotional reactions are common, but what is often unexpected are symptoms like physical pain, disturbed sleep, and behavioural changes. For example, some people feel unsafe leaving home, travelling, or unwilling to socialise. We are all different in how we respond.
Help and support
Supporting someone who is grieving can make a significant difference in their healing process. But, death and loss can be difficult to talk about and many people struggle to know how to support someone after a loss. This can be particularly difficult at work, where it may feel intrusive to approach a colleague who is grieving. People often worry about saying ‘the wrong thing’.
However, with common sense and sensitivity this can be overcome. Remember that ‘less is more’. There is no need to overdo the sympathy. Swallow your own discomfort and offer a simple acknowledgement such as “I’m sorry for your loss”. For many people that will be sufficient. It tells them politely that you are sympathetic, without intruding.
Firstly, be a good listener, providing a safe space for them to express their emotions. Offer practical help, such as cooking meals or running errands, to alleviate their immediate burdens. Respect that their mourning process is unique to them, and avoid pushing them to “get over it.”
Understand that grief takes time and that varies for each person. There is no ‘typical timescale’ so never use phrases like “time to move on”, or, “fresh start”.
Even if you have suffered a significant loss yourself, never assume that you understand how a grieving person is feeling or what they are thinking. Be sympathetic, and supportive. Express your condolences with sincerity, and keep in touch regularly. Offer practical help if you think it is appropriate.
Encourage the person to seek professional help if necessary, but above all, show empathy, patience, and compassion throughout their grieving journey.