How to respond to those living with grief

Grief is in the room, and it’s the size of an elephant.  Do you see it?  Can you feel it? 

It’s hard to know what to say…or do when a friend loses a loved one.  We can’t stop the pain someone else is living with (which is hard for us to sit with), but we can acknowledge that we see the elephant standing on their foot, which can help the person grieving feel less alone.

Relationships vary and what it’s called does not predict the experience of grief.  A best friend may be your sister too.  A grandfather may be your kindred spirit, or a pet your constant companion.  We like to define things to understand them better.  Let this one go.  We will only know what someone else tells us it is like to lose what they have lost.  Listen to them talk and try to understand. 

People process grief in so many ways.  The uncle that doesn’t shed a tear is grieving.  The neighbor that hasn’t changed out of her bathrobe in weeks could use your compassion, not your judgement.  Loss does not follow a script or a formula.  The process will take how much time it takes.  We may sincerely wish for someone to feel better, but that does not change their process.  Grief cannot be ‘fixed’.  We may feel uncomfortable with the depth of emotion we witness.  We may feel helpless, and struggle to find the ‘right’ words to say.  (See below for some suggestions)  Consider what witnessing grief stirs up for you.

I’ve heard people say they don’t want to “bring up” the loss to someone grieving by asking how they are.  I’m here to tell you that you are not bringing up something that is not already on their mind.  To share that you are thinking of someone is an act of kindness.  They may choose not to discuss how they are in depth, but that you asked and acknowledged that they are going through a difficult time is a supportive exchange. 

Sheryl Sandberg writes in her book, Option B, “Specific acts help because instead of trying to fix the problem, they address the damage caused by the problem.”  What could you say or do to soften the impact caused by loss?  I had dear friends stock the freezer and mow the lawn following a death in the family.  It was so helpful.  They took away the mystery of dinner and lightened my load in a meaningful way.


What can you say?

  • How are you? (Then give them your undivided attention as they answer)

  • There are no words for this.

  • This must be so hard.  I remember you saying that she/he (some personal memory).

  • If you understand or share in a belief system with the bereaved- words of faith may be a comfort.

  • I’m sorry for your loss.

  • I’m thinking of you.

  • What can I do to support you? (Give options, because this is a hard one to answer- especially for those that don’t typically ask for help)


What can you do?

  • Offer to sit with them/stay with them/give them a hug (depending on the nature of the relationship).

  • Organize friends to deliver dinner.

  • Walk the dog.

  • Fill the car’s gas tank.

  • Set up a carpool for the kids.

  • Donate to a charity in the deceased’s name.

  • Mail them a gift certificate to a local restaurant.

  • Start a GoFundMe page to help ease financial burdens.

  •  Send cards on anniversaries.

These are just a few ideas of what you can say or do when someone you care about has suffered a loss.  I hope you’ve found this helpful.  “I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees” writes Mat Kearney in the song Closer to Love.  This is so very true.  I ask you to offer compassion to those living with loss.  They don’t need to suffer alone.    

Thank you.