How to help someone who is grieving

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.

Learn more about how to help someone who is grieving:


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 Getting Professional Help for more tips on ways to help someone after a loss.


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
  • seem to be relying on alcohol or drugs
  • no longer eating regularly
  • sleeping too much or having a lot of trouble sleeping
  • talking about hurting someone because of their feelings of anger or aggression
  • talking about self-harm or taking their own life.

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 after a loss

Here are some ways to help someone after a loss:

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

This information was last reviewed in April 2017
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Support services

Caring for someone with cancer
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Cancer Council Online Community
A community forum – a safe place to share stories, get tips and connect with people who understand

Cancer information

Emotions and cancer
People who are affected by cancer in some way can experience a range of emotions, that can be very challenging to deal with at times. Learn more.

End of life 
This information may help you better cope with end of life, or support someone who may be dying with cancer

 

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