14 Tips for Comforting the Bereaved

My son, Phillip, took this photo when he visited me in New York, back in 2009.

Today marks the first anniversary of his death. Over the past year, I’ve discovered many things about grief and about how awkward giving and receiving condolences can be.

People offer condolences and I reply, “Thank you.” People ask how I’m doing and I answer, “Fine.” Then, there’s that hush because…where do you go from there? Do I just carry on and start talking about the weather? A class I’m taking? My grandkids? Oops, I’ll never have any grandkids. So many taboo subjects now. Touchy, delicate subjects where there used to be none.

People project their feelings onto me. They can’t imagine the horror of losing a child. They expect me to grieve like they would.

“How are you?”
“I’m doing okay.”
“How are you really?”
“I’m really doing okay.”
Awkward pause as if they don’t believe me. Then, uncomfortable silence.
“You’re so strong.”

I don’t understand. If getting up and putting one foot in front of the other for the past year is strong, then I’m strong. Was I supposed to crawl into bed, curl into a fetal position, and pull the covers over my head? I don’t think that’s what Phillip would have wanted me to do.

How does one handle grief? Do I keep myself so busy that I don’t have time to feel sad? Do I become a hermit and cry every day? Is it okay if I start to enjoy some of my favorite activities again? Or am I supposed to feel numb and empty for six months? A year? Forever?

The pain of losing someone you love never goes away. It gets magnified on every birthday, holiday, and anniversary. It’s a low-burning flame you carry inside you that flares up at odd times, like when you drive past the preschool your child once attended or the park where he went to his best friend’s birthday party. Grief’s a sneaky beast that stalks and then attacks you when you least expect it.

I’m grateful to my friends, who have been terrific at consoling me. I have felt supported, loved, and heard. It’s not easy to comfort the bereaved. Mercifully, many of us don’t have much practice at doing it.

From my own experience, here are some suggestions of things to do or not do when offering condolences:

  1. Be there.
  2. Listen.
  3. Bring food.
  4. Be quiet. Listen.
  5. Be strong. The grieving person is already trying to hold it together. If you need more sympathy than s/he does, you’re not helping. You are there to comfort, not the other way around.
  6. Be decisive, but not pushy. The grieving person has enough decisions to make without your adding more to their plate. Even simple questions like “Do you want chicken or pasta? Tonight or tomorrow?” can be too much. Decide that you’re bringing over chicken tonight and then do it. The grieving person won’t be that picky. They need to eat, but probably won’t be hungry anyway.
  7. Follow through. If you offer food, companionship, whatever, then show up.
  8. Check on them again. And again. A simple, “How’re you doing?” is fine and appreciated. Grief doesn’t immediately dissolve. Knowing that people are still thinking of them, caring about them, even from afar, is soothing and important.
  9. Some statements are not helpful. “He’s in a better place.” Probably, but it doesn’t help to hear this when his absence is so new and raw. “I have no words.” There are no words, but a simple “I’m so sorry” conveys your message.
  10. Don’t ask nosy questions. If the grieving person wants to tell you how their loved one died or give more details, they will. Asking a bunch of questions, such as “How did he die? Was he married? Did he have kids?”, etc. feels invasive and exhausting.
  11. Don’t blame the victim. We all make bad choices in life. Don’t tell the grieving person that bad choices caused the death of their loved one, even if it might be true.
  12. Asking questions such as “How can I help?” isn’t useful. The grieving person probably isn’t thinking straight. They don’t know how you can help. Bring over a casserole and a hug. Sit down and be prepared to listen.
  13. If you offer to pray for the bereaved or their loved one, then do it. They need all the support that they can get. 
  14. If you are able, follow up again. Let the person know that you’re continuing to think about and care about them. Once the initial shock is over and the flurry of condolences has ended, grim reality begins to set in. The bereaved need as much support a week later, a month later, even years later, as they needed when you first reached out to them.

“Never turn down a dance. A second invitation isn’t guaranteed.”

~~Sally Rose
Author of Amazon Nº. 1 Best Seller Penny Possible
Author of A Million Sticky Kisses
Contributing author to Once Upon An Expat
iamsallyrose.com

10 Comments

  1. Reply
    Elspeth Anderson May 4, 2017

    Hi Sally

    Just read your post re Comforting The Bereaved appreciate it very much. I can relate to it,as I lost my son
    9 x years ago, Angus died of a brain aneurysm aged 40.
    What helped me was a bereavement group I was learned about, called The Compassionate Friends UK & world wide. Like you, I experienced the awkwardness re other peoples reaction when they did not know what to say, “except for a few” people and was grateful to them and their thoughtful responses. Years have passed but awkward moments still come up on the anniversary occasionally.
    thinking of you and thanks again
    Elspeth

    • Reply
      sallyrose May 4, 2017

      Thanks for your remarks, Elspeth. My sympathy on the loss of your son.

  2. Reply
    Ronni May 4, 2017

    You are so right with every one of these! I learned that saying “I don’t know what to say” is better than saying nothing at all or asking too many personal questions. And I’ve told people that you get lots of support in the beginning but then everyone goes back to their ‘normal’ life – yet we have to deal with a ‘new normal.’ For me, that first week or two everybody was hovering around and taking care of everything. All I needed to do was eat, rest, and breathe. Then reality hit in and I had to do grocery shopping for one; or small loads of laundry; or find something to do on the weekends besides sit in front of the TV. Losing my husband was very different from you losing your son but in the end it is still a major loss in our lives and something we will never forget. I’m officially a ‘widow’ but there is no name for someone who has lost a child… Hugs and kisses always.

    • Reply
      sallyrose May 4, 2017

      Thank you, Ron. Hugs to you, too.

  3. Reply
    Susan May 4, 2017

    Thank you, Sally. Our family is still reeling from losing our son-in-law suddenly in March, 2016. We’re coping with the aftermath now–the illnesses, the emotions–but we’re doing it together as much as possible. Our hearts are with you.

    • Reply
      sallyrose May 4, 2017

      Thanks for your comments, Susan. My sincere sympathy on the passing of your son-in-law.

  4. Reply
    Karen May 4, 2017

    Sally, you teach through your writing more than so many do in the front of a class.
    With the angst of your personal experience you have reached many who haven’t had the depth of your loss.
    Thank you for your willingness to help others. And yet It is we who should still be helping!
    Your guidelines are heaven-sent. Tom has just learned of a close in-law’s death that happened today.

    Blessings upon you,
    HUGS

    • Reply
      sallyrose May 4, 2017

      Thanks for your touching comments, Karen. I’m sorry to hear of Tom’s in-law’s passing. My sympathies. Hugs back at you.

  5. Reply
    Donna M May 5, 2017

    Sally, I’m sending you a long-distance hug!

    • Reply
      sallyrose May 5, 2017

      Thanks, Donna. I hope that you are doing well.

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