Supporting Someone Through the Grieving Process

By Peter Welch

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 80 percent of students had, at some point, supported someone who was grieving. Experiencing loss is painful and difficult, and although people grieve for a variety of reasons, the ways that these feelings manifest themselves are often similar from one person to the next.

Providing comfort and help to a friend who is grieving takes kindness, patience, and perseverance. Dr. Paul Cody, a psychologist at the University of New Hampshire Counseling Center in Durham, encourages students who are supporting a grieving friend to understand that “each person expresses grief differently, and following the griever’s lead in terms of what he or she may or may not want to talk about will be helpful.”

Lauren P., a junior at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, understands Dr. Cody’s point well. “My good friend came back to school after the loss of her mom. After a few weeks, she was still sad but didn’t want to talk about it. I figured out I had to take a step back and just be there to listen when she needed me.”

If you have a friend who has experienced a loss, here are some specific things you can do that may be helpful:

  1. This is probably the most important thing you can offer. Listening will allow your friend to express his or her thoughts and feelings. If your friend has lost someone through death, encourage sharing memories of the person or pet who died.
  2. Y.O.S. (Understand Your Own Stuff). Think back on a time when you experienced a loss. Remember what it was like for you. The more you understand your own personal experiences, the better you’ll be able to support your friend in meaningful ways. Be careful, however, not to focus on yourself during conversations.
  3. Encourage self-care. Encourage your friend to take care of him- or herself through eating well, getting enough exercise and rest, and finding comfort in everyday routines and activities.
  4. Be okay with just “being.” Sometimes it feels awkward when supporting a grieving friend. You might wonder if you’re saying the right things. Just being present for your friend is what’s most important.
  5. Pace Yourself. Being a good friend takes time and energy. Immediately after the loss, your friend will probably need more from you. Think about how much you can offer, and be clear about your boundaries in terms of what you can and can’t do—either because of other responsibilities or your own emotional needs.

Paul Welch*, director of the counseling center at Framingham State University, offers these words of advice for students: “Often when students are grieving, it’s hard for them to articulate what they need. Doing simple things for them can mean a lot.” He suggests:

  • Regularly check in with your friend.
  • Give your friend “permission” to be sad or angry or quiet.
  • Offer to prepare a meal or take care of another task.
  • Encourage your friend to relax and pause as needed.
  • Acknowledge the need for momentary distractions from grief.
  • Understand that grieving takes time and patience, but does get better.

Jeremie C., a senior at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, explains, “Be attentive. Provide comfort and reassurance. Don’t be a constant reminder of the loss, though. Only talk about it if it seems that your friend wants to.”

Most students will adapt after a loss, slowly returning to their daily routines and reflecting on the loss as an important aspect of their lives.

Reconciliation with a loss doesn’t mean that the grief has resolved, but that the person has come to a peaceful understanding of what’s happened.

If you notice changes in your friend’s behavior that go on for a long time or are self-destructive, professional support can help.

Welch explains that some people experience what’s called complicated grief. “Complicated grief can occur if a person doesn’t start to feel better. Grief for some people can take many months, and sometimes years, to resolve,” he says.

Supporting a friend who has experienced a loss may be draining for you, and that’s understandable. Pay attention to your own self-care. Corey J., a senior at the University of New Hampshire, says, “Caring about a friend who has lost someone takes a lot of energy. I had to pay attention to how I was taking care of myself, too.”

Only if you’re mindful of your own needs can you be a good friend. Grief is often difficult, so remember to not only offer support, but also accept it.

* Paul Welch is related to the author of this article.

  • Offer your grieving friend patience and kindness.
  • Understand your own experiences of grief and loss.
  • Listen and offer help with daily tasks.
  • Follow your friend’s lead when offering support.
  • Help your friend maintain a routine and keep up with self-care.
  • Be mindful of your own boundaries and need for support.

Peter is a wellness educator and counselor at the University of New Hampshire.

Initially described by famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, the five stages of grief are:

  1. Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  2. Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  3. Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
  4. Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  5. Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

The stages of grief don’t occur in any particular order, can overlap, and frequently people return to stages they’ve already cycled through.

More about these stages.

The most important thing you can do for someone who’s grieving is to listen. Many people worry about “saying the wrong thing,” so here are some statements that aren’t helpful:

I know how you feel.
Even if you’ve experienced a loss, you can never know exactly how another person feels. Plus, this statement makes the conversation about you, rather than your friend.

Instead, ask the grieving person open-ended questions and encourage him or her to tell you how he or she feels.

Look at what you have to be thankful for.
Usually people in grief already know that they have things to be thankful for. Right now what’s important is that they’ve lost someone or something important.

She’s in a better place now.
People’s beliefs about what happens after death vary. This kind of statement may not bring any comfort or may even be offensive. Also, what’s most important right now is how your friend is feeling.

This is behind you now. It’s time to get on with your life.
Sometimes those in grief are resistant to “moving on” because they feel it would mean forgetting their loved one. This statement may also convey, even if unintentionally, that you’re impatient and want your friend to be more like he or she was before experiencing the loss.

You should… or You will…
No one likes to be told what to do. Plus, grief can leave people feeling like they don’t have control over things. While you may think you’re helping by making decisions or suggesting solutions to your friend, this approach can backfire.

Instead, begin your comments with phrases like, “Have you thought about…” or “You might want to…” or “I found it helpful to…”

It’s normal for a grieving person to struggle with daily tasks for a while.

Here are some signs that someone may need more support:

  • Increased or sustained depression or anxiety
  • Struggling to maintain a sense of meaning in his or her life
  • Isolation or withdrawal from relationships
  • Thinking about the loss all the time
  • Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Crying, anger, or agitation that doesn’t subside
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Encourage your friend to speak with a trusted mentor or to make an appointment at your school’s counseling center. Many schools also offer discussion and support groups for students experiencing grief.