How to Support a Friend Who Is Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

Even the best of friends can struggle to support each other during times of loss. Here’s what to do.
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Even the best of friends can struggle to support each other during times of loss. Here’s what to do.
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Photo Credit: Evgenia Kohan

A dear friend of mine recently lost her mother. Her death was expected, but knowing that it’s coming doesn’t make the loss any easier. I’ve found that getting a friend through tough times can often be a difficult process to navigate, and I don’t always know the best way to respond.

Everyone handles grief differently. It can be very hard for friends to stay close and remain helpful during the long, lonely, and painful process of saying goodbye. Families often find themselves drowning in freezer meals and floral arrangements, all the while desperately needing some real human contact. Knowing what to say or how to approach such intimate pain takes forethought, but there are a few simple ways I’ve found to really show support.

Know that the funeral is just the beginning.

This is the big one. After the flowers fade and the Pyrex containers are returned to their owners, the real impact of loss can sneak in.

Helen Hofman, a licensed mental health counselor with Seattle Christian Counseling, says that although funeral preparations and burial arrangements can keep you busy, loneliness usually hits hardest in the weeks following the service. “Grieving involves different processes and tasks, but these are not sequential or completed in a linear way,” Hofman says. “Whether one is conscious of these processes or not . . . family, friends, and other support systems, such as church relationships and social groups, are needed to help the bereaved.”

The process of grieving is different for everyone, and it can be a long time before the real pain of loss comes to the surface. Make sure to stay close by your friend in the weeks or months after the funeral, and be ready to jump in with a quick meal, a phone call, or even a girls’ night out. She’ll need a friend; make her glad she has you.

Make yourself available.

It may seem obvious, but it’s important for your friends to know they can count on you in a time of crisis. Whether it’s picking up cat food at the pet store or literally being a shoulder to cry on, it’s the little things that can go a long way. When your friend is grieving, the occasion calls for you to slow down a bit, especially if you are accustomed to a busy “let me pencil you in” kind of routine. Make a point to make your availability known, and demonstrate it by following up with invitations to spend time with your friend or bring her a meal. You don’t have to clear your schedule, but be aware that your time is worth its weight in gold to someone dealing with loss.

Reach out with purpose.

It’s often tempting to give your friends a lot of space when there’s been a death in the family, but don’t wait too long to reach out with a card or a phone call. Grief can be very lonely and isolating, especially for women, and it’s important to feel supported.

A simple “How are you doing today?” is enough. When you take the initiative to touch base, it tells her that you care about her feelings, and it also opens the door to opportunities to help. Sending a message that doesn’t warrant a reply is also nice. A text that says, “I’m thinking about you; just wanted you to know that I’m here,” is a way to show that you care, and your friend won’t feel obligated to reply if she’s having a bad day and doesn’t feel like talking.

When the initial shock of losing my grandmother started to fade, my best friend was great at taking me out and getting my mind on something else. I knew I could talk to her about what I was feeling, but the outings also gave me the chance to let it go, even just for a few hours. It can be refreshing to take a breath and realize that you’re not alone.

Be ready to listen.

Sometimes listening can be tough. Phone calls can last longer than you planned, or the timing may be off. You might be struggling with your own problems and want to talk about that. But it’s important to stay focused on your friend.

Hofman says, “The most important thing you can do is listen. Be there. Provide a listening base, but still give them space. Participate in their lament because there’s a real healing ministry in that.” Grieving is a lonely process, and sometimes an understanding ear or another Netflix buddy on the couch is all she really needs. Bring the tissues (and the wine), and be ready to hear her out or just sit together.

“Feeling the grief and pain associated with death is actually helpful,” Hofman says. “A sense of being completely alone is normal. People are often afraid of negative emotion, but it’s important to allow yourself to feel. You have to recognize the grief and acknowledge it.”

The Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva is a perfect example of acknowledging another’s grief. During the weeklong period of mourning, loved ones surround family, and death becomes a community affair. It’s an intentional tradition that says, “I am here. I am present with you in your pain.”

Notice the little hints.

The big question after a death is often, “What can I do?” But sometimes your friend won’t be able to tell you what she needs. She may not even know. She may not notice her dirty apartment or her empty fridge, which gives you a great opportunity to pitch in without being asked. A quick vacuum job or a small bag of groceries can mean more than you realize.

When my great-grandfather died, we had a friend who quietly came by once a week and mowed the lawn. Knowing there was one less thing to worry about was comforting.

Try to laugh.

My husband recently reminded me of a time when his close friend lost his father. The guys decided to get some air after the funeral and get ice cream. My husband slipped on a napkin and crashed to the floor, sending ice cream and hot fudge flying. It proved to be a much-needed moment of levity in an otherwise heavy day. Short of tripping yourself for the sake of a laugh, it’s important to let a little humor in during the tougher days.

If you haven’t yet experienced the loss of someone close to you, knowing what to do and say may not come naturally. But that is OK; close friends will be patient with you as you endearingly feel your way through this challenging part of friendship. The important thing is that you try.