How to help someone who is grieving

Saturday 1 April, 2017

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On this page: How can I ease their pain? | Will I say the wrong thing? | When to suggest professional help | Helping children in your family


It can be hard to know how to help someone who is grieving. You may become lost for words, or feel hesitant about offering practical assistance. However, simply making the offer can let the person know they are not alone. If you need to support grieving children, it can help to understand that they may react to loss in a different way to adults.

How can I ease their pain?

If you know someone who is grieving, it is important to accept that you cannot and do not need to fix their grief. Grieving is the way we adjust to loss.

It is understandable that the person may be easily upset, so try to be sensitive to this. Their feelings may change often and seem unpredictable. One day the person may feel hopeful, the next day all they may feel is sadness and despair. These ups and downs are a normal part of grief.

It is important to be patient. Don't expect a bereaved person to feel or behave in a certain way by a certain time. Allow them to do things in their own time.

While practical assistance can ease someone's burden, especially in the days and weeks after the death, follow the person's lead about how much help they want. Sometimes getting back into everyday routines is how a person manages their grief.

See ways to help someone after a loss for more tips.

Will I say the wrong thing?

You may want to help, but fear saying or doing the wrong thing. Be honest right from the start. You may need to say, "I want to help, but I'm not sure what to do." Or "I don't know what to say, but I want you to know I do care and I am here if you need a shoulder to cry on." Your honesty will be appreciated.

However, it is not helpful to say, "I know how you feel." Each person grieves in their own way. You cannot know exactly how the bereaved person feels, even if you have been through a similar experience or if you are also grieving. This doesn't mean that your experiences won't give you a better understanding of the person's situation, but remember that they may not react in the same way as you would or did.

Give reassurance where you can but don't try to find something positive in the death. To empathise without suggesting you know exactly how they feel, you could say things like, "Loss can be very difficult to cope with", or "I imagine you feel very uncertain about what to do next."

When to suggest professional help

It is normal for a person's grief and sadness to go on for some months or longer. Sometimes, however, a person experiencing grief can become overwhelmed and may develop depression or suicidal thoughts. You could suggest that they seek professional help if they are having trouble completing the tasks of daily living, or show any of the other behaviours listed here.

If you are concerned that the person may become suicidal, ask them if they think they are doing okay and encourage them to seek professional support. You may need to ask directly, "Have you felt suicidal?" This can indicate that you can offer help and take some of the power out of the feelings the person is having. Keep in touch if you are concerned about their wellbeing or safety.

Ways to help someone after a loss

Step in

If needed, help with practical chores such as shopping, laundry, gardening, picking the kids up from school, caring for elderly parents, paying bills, cooking and driving.

Listen

Be a good listener and don't force someone to talk. Just being by their side may be enough. They will talk when they are ready.

Remember

Let the person know you are thinking of them on significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries.

Stick around

Don't withdraw your support once you feel the person is coping better. Grief from a major loss can take a long time. Your support may be more helpful months or even years down the track than right after the death.

Reminisce

Talk about the person who died. Don't be afraid to use their name or fear that it will be upsetting. The person you are supporting won't have forgotten about their loss.

Helping children in your family

Children and teenagers have a different way of expressing their grief. Do not underestimate the impact of a bereavement, even if a child is very young or does not seem sad. They may express their grief through play, in outbursts of anger, or by becoming clingy or very withdrawn. Some children will complain more of stomach upsets or have trouble sleeping.

Children often worry that something they said or did caused the death, so let them know that the death is no-one's fault and that there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. After the death of a parent, children need to be reassured that they will be looked after – explain to them who will be involved in their care.

Like adults, children and young people need:

  • space to grieve – you do not have to fix their sorrow
  • acknowledgement of their loss, ongoing support, and the opportunity to understand and express their feelings
  • to be told the truth and to be included
  • for the adults around them to show them that it's okay to cry and express their sadness, and that it's also fine to be angry as long as they don't hurt themselves or others
  • help to put words to their feelings of loss
  • to keep up school, activities and regular routines
  • encouragement to cherish their memories, talk about the person, and know that they were and are loved.

The ways children understand death and experience grief changes with their age and development. They might seem to be deeply distressed one moment and playing happily the next. This does not mean that their grief is superficial – they often work through their feelings in bits and pieces, facing them in bearable doses. Allow children to talk about their emotions in a safe environment without judgement and give them tools that suit their way of grieving, such as drawing or kicking a ball to help manage emotions.

It's especially hard to be there for your children when you are grieving. Sometimes people feel they just don't have any emotional energy left for their children. It is not uncommon for children and teenagers to start to express their grief more strongly just as the adults supporting them feel like they are starting to cope with their own grief. At this time, it is important to allow others to help. Reach out to extended family, friends and school to make sure your children are well supported.

Find out more about children and grief

Cancer Council has more information about helping grieving children. Talking to Kids About Cancer explains how children of different ages understand cancer, illness and death, and answers some of the common questions kids ask. Cancer in the School Community includes information for school staff when a student, a student's family member or a staff member has died from cancer. Call 13 11 20 to find out more. CanTeen, Redkite and Good Grief offer support tailored for young people.


Reviewed by: Kate Jurgens, Bereavement Coordinator, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, SA; Gabrielle Asprey, Facilitator, Telephone and Internet Support Groups, Cancer Council NSW; Leigh Donovan, Bereavement Coordinator, Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, QLD; Dr Kathryn Dwan, Senior Policy Officer, Palliative Care Australia; Philippa Kirkpatrick, National Policy Manager, Palliative Care Australia; Mary Klasen, Pastoral Care Manager, Mercy Hospital for Women, VIC; Tracey Newnham, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kerrie Noonan, Clinical Psychologist, Palliative Care, Liverpool Hospital, and Director, The Groundswell Project, NSW.