Supporting a Bereaved Friend or Relative

Advice on ways to support and help someone through grief

Last updated: 28 November 2016

When someone you know has lost a loved one, it can be hard to know how to best support them. Grief after a death can be a long and complex journey, full of difficult, complicated emotions. Your friend or relative will be going through one of the toughest times in their life, so your support could be vital in helping them cope.

If you’re looking for ways to help someone with grief, understand that there is nothing you can do to take away their pain or end their grief. The best you can hope for is to show them that they are not alone and perhaps make coping with grief a little easier.

Understanding grief

Everyone experiences grief differently, so you will never truly know exactly how your bereaved friend or relative feels, even if you have lost someone yourself. However, there are a few things to bear in mind that could help you understand why they are behaving in certain ways.

  • Grief is unpredictable. Neither you nor your bereaved friend can tell how their grief will show itself. They might be in floods of tears one day, silent and cold the next. Their emotions may be extremely changeable.
  • Their grief is unique to them. As mentioned, everyone has a different experience of bereavement. There is no normal way to grieve, so don’t worry if they are behaving differently from any other grieving friends you have had in the past.
  • They need to grieve in their own way. There is no one way to grieve. Some people need distraction and work, others need to be alone and cry. Some people might even seem to continue with normal life. The important thing is to let them cope with it as they see fit, as long as they are not hurting themselves or others. Don’t force them to grieve in a certain way.
  • Grief doesn’t have a timescale. There is no set time limit on mourning a loved one. Many people will grieve for the rest of their lives, though the grief will change and become more manageable. Don’t pressure your friend or relative to ‘get over it’.
  • They will be experiencing lots of intense emotions. Grief isn’t just about sadness. Your friend may experience anger, bitterness, shock, despair, relief and jealousy, to name but a few emotions. Sometimes the bereaved vent these emotions on others – try to be understanding if they act strangely or negatively towards you.
  • You can’t fix it. As mentioned before, you cannot fix their grief or take it away. It is best to accept this and just let them grieve. Actively trying to cheer them up or suggesting reasons why they shouldn’t feel so sad may not be helpful, even though it comes from your concern for them.

Ways to help

Even though you can’t fix your friend or relative’s grief, there are a few things you can do to support them.

  • Say something. You may feel uncomfortable about speaking to your friend. What do you say? Will they start crying? What if you say the wrong thing? Remember that the awkwardness you are feeling is nothing compared to their pain. Just a simple “I’m so sorry” will be better than staying silent. Ignoring them will make them feel isolated and alone.
  • Say their loved one’s name. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died if it comes up in conversation. Avoiding the issue or refusing to say their name for fear of upsetting your friend will make them feel as though their loved one is being forgotten. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the person who has died.
  • Offer practical support. Rather than saying, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”, find a way to help and do it. The bereaved often struggle to ask for help, even when they really need it. Things like cooking, cleaning, babysitting or driving them to appointments can be helpful.
  • Don’t get offended if they reject your support. If your bereaved friend or relative says they do not need your help, do not take this personally. They may have a lot of people helping them, or they may want to deal with it on their own. Respect their decision but be there for them if they change their mind.
  • Listen. Having someone to talk to can be really important when coping with grief. If your friend or relative opens up to you about how they are feeling, listen patiently. They may not be asking for advice, it might just be about expressing their emotions, so don’t rush to give your opinion.
  • Invite them to social occasions. A few weeks after the funeral, try to include your bereaved friend or relative in a small social gathering. They might reject your invitation, but do not stop inviting them to events. Though they might feel unable to go out today, in the near future they might need the distraction.
  • Be there for the long-term. Often a bereaved person has lots of offers of help in the first days and weeks, but six months down the line, when the loss really starts to set in, it seems that no one is there. Remember to keep in touch, even if it’s just the occasional text, and keep inviting them to do things with you.

If you’re supporting a bereaved child or bereaved teenager, there may be other ways of offering support.

If you would like more advice on helping someone going through bereavement, check out our bereavement support page or contact one of the specialist bereavement support organisations offering help across Australia to speak to a trained professional.