How to Help Someone Who’s Grieving
For those grieving the loss of a loved one, the world can seem to stop in its tracks. What can we do to help those who are mourning the death of someone close?
We’ve all experienced it in one form or another. Loss comes in many forms, including the loss of financial security, the loss of a job or a loss due to disability or a nonfatal accident.
These can all be devastating in different ways.
In preparing this blog post, we interviewed a number of individuals who have experienced the loss of a loved one to get their input and insights on this difficult topic.
This blog post will deal primarily with the loss of life and how we can be helpful to those on the front lines of this powerful wave of grief. We should remember that God expects us “to comfort those who are in any trouble [tribulation], with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
How can we comfort and help someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one?
The “ball in the box” concept of grief
One helpful way of visualizing our own grief and how others process grief is called the “ball in the box” metaphor. This phrase was coined by Lauren Herschel in 2017 after hearing about the concept from her doctor.
Imagine a square on a piece of paper. On one side of the square is a tiny, little red button inside the square. Now, imagine a huge ball inside the box, almost filling it.
Now, imagine another square on another piece of paper with another red button inside the square on one of the sides. But this time, imagine a much smaller ball.
The analogy may be revealing itself now. When we are first confronted with loss and start to grieve, we have this huge ball in our box that is constantly pressing the pain button. No matter which way it moves, no matter what we see or hear or do, it hits that pain button because it is so big (the loss is so raw).
Over time, and with support from caring friends and family, the ball slowly shrinks and only hits that pain button every once in a while. Perhaps the pain wells up on certain dates or randomly, due to a particular trigger. We may be perplexed by why we feel melancholy or sadness at a given moment, due to how randomly a trigger of grief can hit us. The trigger might be a certain smell in a room, or an anniversary of a special day in the relationship, or even an old commercial you used to watch together.
The point is, everyone has a different size of grief in their box at any given time, and that pain button might be getting hit every hour of every day after a very recent loss but less frequently after more time has passed.
Knowing this is invaluable when trying to help others deal with grief. What size might the ball in their box be right now? Is this the time to just sit with them and say nothing (Job 2:13), or is the ball small enough that now is the time to recount happy memories about their loved one?
Think of how large the ball in the box might be and how often that pain button is getting pushed.
Survey questions and responses—a sobering road map for how to help
The cold reality we have to accept when discussing this topic is that none of us will escape experiencing loss. The Bible reveals that everyone will die at some point (Hebrews 9:27). But the Bible tempers that hard reality with the hope and encouragement that death is not final.
Below are the questions we asked, as well as a wide selection of the responses we received. We believe that within these comments are many gems of wisdom that will enable us to better help people dealing with loss and grief.
Question 1: What helpful things did people say soon after the death of your loved one? What made it helpful?
“Things that expressed that my husband had made a difference in their lives. These things were helpful because I knew he would not be forgotten.”
“‘I am praying for you.’ ‘What can I do to help?’ ‘This must be so hard.’ ‘We loved your mom.’ ‘She was an awesome lady.’ ‘We will miss her.’ ‘She touched our lives.’ Stories of how her life touched theirs. It helped so much to know and hear that my mom’s life mattered to others besides me. It helped to know specifically the ways she influenced other people in a positive way. It brought meaning to her life and shared grief in her loss.”
Focus on the positive influence the lost loved one had, including specific stories. “It was hard for people to know what to say, but asking me about his life or sharing their experiences with him helped the most. Because I wanted to talk about him more than anything. I was most positively impacted by those who asked me much later how I was doing, and acknowledged that it was still very difficult long after the service . . . months or anniversary touch points later.”
“What I found to be the most comforting was a tight, heartfelt hug, because someone knew that no words, no matter how true or poignant, could be the right ones. A good hug means ‘I’m present for your grief, and I’ll help you carry it.’”
“Sharing how my father impacted their lives and encouraged them. It was helpful because it meant that his life was meaningful as more than just my father.”
“‘I can only imagine.’ ‘You’re going through a lot; give yourself compassion.’ ‘There is no timeline, and all that you are feeling is normal.’ These things are helpful because they are validating and truly empathetic.”
“I cannot think of specific things that were said that stand out as helpful. I am sure that there were a few things, but I do remember those first acts of kindness. I believe that the acts of kindness, regardless of how small, were comforting.”
- Focus on the positive influence the lost loved one had, including specific stories.
- Give verbal assurance of prayers.
- Give the grieving person an opportunity to share stories of his or her lost loved one.
- Show physical affection.
- Show understanding and give him or her time to go through the grieving process.
- Carry out acts of kindness for the grieving person.
Question 2: What unhelpful things did people say soon after the death of your loved one?
“‘Well, at least you have one child!’ This was very painful. The life of one child does not replace the life of another.”
“I had an extended family member who died from suicide. Someone said, ‘What happened?!’ I was not ready to share details of his unexpected sudden death. Someone else said, ‘What was he so upset about, anyway?’ That was hard to hear. After the death of my mom to cancer, a few questioned how God could let that happen to someone who was so sweet and good. That was not so helpful either.”
“Anything that starts with the words at least. Trying to find the silver lining is unhelpful. Anything that seemed to imply that he was unhealthy so it wasn’t a surprise and not something they needed to fear for their own sakes. Also, ‘I know just how you feel.’ Everyone is different, and no one feels the same way. Comparisons are unhelpful.”
Avoid inconsiderate comments that make light of the loss or try to find something positive about it.“Cliché comments were very unhelpful. If you don’t know what to say, just offer a consoling hug. In most losses the touch of someone has disappeared forever. It leaves a terrible void. Unhelpful phrases about moving on are hard and almost made me angry, as though there’s some predetermined or prescribed time allotment for grief. It is unhelpful when others try to pinpoint your ‘stage’ of grief. These are real and ebb and flow over a very long period of time, and are not always all present for everyone. [It was] unhelpful to look at me and declare, ‘You’re doing great,’ even though I was a total mess on the inside. Ask someone; but don’t pronounce it based on appearance. [It is] unhelpful to express their personal anger over the loss, ‘I am so angry that he did this to you,’ which happened due to my circumstances.”
“It’s not helpful to tell a grieving person all about your own grief. It’s okay to mention your own experience briefly to express that you understand his or her feelings, but not to the extent of making the conversation about yourself. It’s just not the right time.”
“‘He’s in a better place.’ ‘At least he didn’t suffer long.’ ‘You’ll see him again.’ Although it is comforting to know this in the long run, in the beginning, it was not helpful to me. In the very beginning, shock takes over, and all you want is your loved one back.”
“That my mom was watching over us as an angel. It was unhelpful because the person knew very well that that is not what my family and I believe. It felt like they were challenging me instead of giving comfort.”
“‘Sorry for your loss.’ It feels impersonal and has very little depth. It’s a catchphrase that does not provide comfort.”
“I was not ready to go from married to the title of widow. I felt that I needed to grieve first. In other words, I felt that I needed time to grieve the loss of my spouse before grieving the loss of who I have now become. That is another loss that I needed to grieve at a later date. As a woman, you immediately go from Mrs. to Miss or widow or single. People don’t know what to say. It is a little easier to accept the change after some time has gone by, otherwise it just feels like an added layer of loss all at once. It was unhelpful, because I needed to grieve the loss of the person who was no longer with me, before grieving the loss of my identity related to the loss. When you are hurting and grieving a loved one, it takes time to come to grips with all of the ways your own life has changed. It takes some time for the transition to take place. It was hurtful to me, because I now felt forced or rushed. I remember crying when taking care of business and getting asked, ‘Are you married, single, divorced or widowed?’ These things just made me feel forced to disconnect or ‘move on.’ It was just too much for me to accept at the time. Now that some time has passed, none of that seems too important to me.”
“‘You will see him again.’ Or scriptures related to that. Many times this is not consoling. Knowing that there is an afterlife does not take away the extreme loss and grief. It is better to just be with someone or tell him or her you care if you don’t know what to say. In fact, saying, ‘I don’t know what to say, but I care/love you’ means so much. Empathy is simpler than we realize.”
- Avoid inconsiderate comments that make light of the loss or try to find something positive about it.
- Avoid asking for details (especially when the loss is raw).
- Avoid questioning why God would allow the loss.
- Avoid “preaching” to the grieving person.
- Avoid clichés.
- Avoid trying to identify the stage of grief the person is experiencing.
- Avoid sharing your own grief and struggles (making the conversation about yourself).
- Avoid comments that contradict what the grieving person believes about death.
- Avoid pushing the grieving person into his or her new reality in life.
Question 3: What helpful things did people do for you and your family soon after the death of your loved one? How were they helpful for you?
“There was one person who just pitched in and did some of the grunt work in preparing for the reception after the funeral, which I had in my yard. This person organized getting tables and chairs, food, drinks, etc. This was wonderful because I was totally overwhelmed with the loss, exhausted and somewhat numb.”
“People prayed for me. I did not get much support as far as having someone to talk to. In fact, I had only my husband. This was extremely painful. My husband was there, but his grief was different. I did not know a woman who had buried her infant, and I needed someone to talk to who had lived through that. But prayer was and is stronger than conversation. Both are needed, but prayer is what got me through.”
Avoid inconsiderate comments that make light of the loss or try to find something positive about it.“Bringing meals. Offering to help with the kids during funeral preparation and services. Anything that eases the load of physical needs that then frees your mind to deal with the grief and emotional trauma of loss. Anticipating needs in a helpful but not controlling or condescending way.”
“Honestly, cards with a shared understanding of loss meant the most. Quite a few people sent some money, which in my situation was extremely helpful. Bringing food over was nice, but it was too much, and it made me feel guilty that some of it was wasted. I had to return to work, but I could barely function. My manager was very understanding and patient, giving me leeway for breaks to regroup. At lunch for a few weeks I would call a close friend who made herself available to listen to me pour out my heart and cry it out. Then I could go back to work for the afternoon. For months and a few years, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who knew my husband well, would understand when I said, ‘I need some time.’ I’d go over and just talk and cry and laugh with them and walk away so encouraged. My grown daughter was deeply impacted by the loss and she also had amazing people in her life who supported her the same way. It’s the long-term support and thoughtfulness that cannot be overrated.”
“Cards and food. Cards with personal notes of sympathy mean so much, and the very practical need to eat is the last concern of a family that is processing a loss, planning a funeral, etc., and yet they actually do need to eat. It’s really nice to have something made for you, ready to heat up when you do manage to have an appetite.”
“Allowing me to be where I was at and having no expectations of what I should or shouldn’t be doing or feeling. I had ones that sat with me and allowed me to shed every tear. I was already feeling raw and didn’t need someone judging me in this new widow walk.”
“Showing up, being present. That was the most helpful. Some sent cards or flowers, prepared and shared food and other items. All those practical things that you don’t want to or can’t think about at the time, but you still need. The most helpful was people just being there—it made me know how much my mom was loved and also made me feel not alone.”
“Two neighbors came over right away and took off work to be with me . . . even when I said I was okay. A couple of friends drove a distance just to make sure we were okay. They checked into a hotel nearby, just to be close for a day or two. One family brought food. Receiving that first card with kind words meant a lot. Even though I could not take every call, it was even better at times to just listen to a voice mail message. All of these things made us feel loved and supported. We received some beautiful cards and flowers, but it also especially warmed my heart when my two children received their own cards, messages and a group of members sent a plant just for them . . . it was more personal to them.”
- Offer to help the grieving person by taking on some of his or her physical burdens.
- Offer genuine prayers.
- Contribute meals in the immediate aftermath of the loss.
- Send a card of sympathy (with a meaningful note in it).
- Allow the person to grieve in his or her own way.
- Be available for the grieving person. Listen.
- Give support and encouragement to all members of a family dealing with the loss.
Question 4: As time goes on, what are some supportive things for people to say or do so you know they remember you and your loved ones? What can people say or do to be supportive from a distance?
“There are two difficult days each year for me: the date of my husband’s death, and the date of our wedding anniversary. There is a young couple who sends me a card on both days. Their thoughtfulness means more than I can ever express!”
“This is a hard one. I think for me, I appreciate the acknowledgement of her life, even if it was only for a day. When someone is distant, again prayer is best. A random card, call or text to let someone know you are thinking and praying for him or her means a lot.”
“Sharing stories of things they appreciated about the person who has died. Saying his or her name and that they miss him or her, and just showing his or her life mattered. From a distance . . . sharing photos and memories, cards, calls.”
Offer support and thoughtfulness on meaningful dates that may be difficult for the person.“Send ‘thinking of you’ texts. Remember the key dates and acknowledge them—birthdays, death days, anniversaries. Share stories about the loved one and share when you are remembering that person.”
“As time goes by, just occasionally acknowledge that you know it’s still hard and ask how the person is doing. Just say, ‘I haven’t forgotten him/her’ . . . because you start to wonder if everyone has.”
“Grief is exhausting. A person going through this may want space, or may want a distraction. Some may want to talk about it, while others may find it too painful and want to talk or think about other things. Stay in touch, don’t ignore them, be a good listener if they want to talk about it, but don’t try to push them if they don’t want to.”
“[We received] a card months later, just saying that they still remembered our family in their prayers, and that they knew we were still grieving. It was wonderful because it validated the grieving process and acknowledged that it takes time. It made me feel seen and supported all those months later. Sending cards is a wonderful way to be supportive from a distance. No matter how much time has gone by, it is wonderful to know someone is thinking of you/your family/your lost loved one. Someone just saying he or she remembers her, or sharing a memory, no matter how small, is very meaningful.”
“This is so important. The griever often feels like the world continues, and he or she is stuck. Check in on him or her. Grief months and years are completely different. Affirm that there is no time limit.”
“As time goes on, it makes me feel good when someone mentions my spouse in an endearing way. It is comforting when others share stories and express that they miss my spouse too. Because life goes on, as it should, but it warms my heart when at least one person remembers the anniversary of the death. There are a few people who live a distance away, yet I feel that they have never left my side. Their emails or texts make me feel loved and supported.”
“Telling stories of how my father helped and encouraged them. Asking questions about him to show that he hasn’t been forgotten.”
- Offer support and thoughtfulness on meaningful dates that may be difficult for the person.
- Offer support and thoughtfulness at any time—even if it seems random.
- Continue to acknowledge the life and memory of the lost loved one, even years after he or she is gone. Assure the grieving person his or her loved one has not been forgotten.
- Stay in touch and be available if the grieving person needs to talk. Check in periodically with him or her.
- Ask questions to learn more about the person the griever has lost. Give him or her opportunities to remember and speak of his or her loved one.
Question 5: If you don’t mind, please share whom you are grieving (spouse, parent, child, family member, friend) and any other advice you have on ways to be supportive of someone’s grief process.
“I grieve for my baby girl. She was born on her due date and lived 35 hours. She was septic. She would be 15 now. My best advice is to pray, know God has a plan, and it is greater than anything we can imagine. I often think of what she would look like, what type of personality she would have. Then I remember that we will see her again. And that brings my mood up.”
“I am grieving a mom, a brother-in-law and a father-in-law. I’m currently working on an album of happy memories for my mother-in-law and my kids, of pictures and memories of my father-in-law. Happy times with Pop-Pop. I think it’s important to be present and be a listening ear for anyone grieving. Saying less, listening more, and not trying to rush or manipulate the ways in which each person must grieve and experience loss. Pray for them daily and throughout the day. Recognize the hard days. Spend time with them doing things they love. Strive to help them carry on through the loss.”
“My daughter. We also have a special-needs son. I would say that being able to grieve the loss of the future you had planned for him is highly important. Finding people you can connect with on a deeper level is extremely important. Otherwise you just feel so alone and disconnected from everyone in everyday life.”
“Spouse. Just make yourself available to listen by having [the grieving person] over, out for coffee, or meet for a walk, providing opportunity. Be ready to listen, asking caring questions, without interrupting to give ‘advice’ or emphasize your own personal history and experiences.”
“Grandparents, niece, and uncle. Listen to a grieving person’s story and experience and do not make assumptions about how the person feels. Everyone grieves differently; the same person may even grieve different losses differently. The best support is being a good listener.”
“Both of my parents have died, and even though it’s been many years, I still think about them often. I do not feel as though I am still grieving, but I do miss them.”
“Father and father-in-law. One of the best ways to support is to just listen when someone is mourning and needs to talk about the loved one.”
“I am grieving my husband. It has been five years since his death, and still there are days that the grief is very strong. Some days I miss him even more than the beginning, because at first it almost felt like he was just traveling, but as time goes on, it seems like forever. Advice that I would pass on: don’t just assume that the ones grieving have enough support. You may assume that lots of people are supporting them. But if everyone assumes that, then some people fall through the cracks. Just reach out because it is the right thing to do, if you are able in any way, to show an act of kindness. We do not have to bring up the loss with every conversation, but sometimes a gentle hug says it all. Don’t just assume . . . do or say something, if and when you are able.”
“My best friend, Dad and Mom, all in less than 1½ years. I would say that grief is much more than just ‘missing someone,’ and understanding that is helpful in supporting others. I would say to check up on them months and months later because I guarantee they are grieving still in ways they may not be aware of. Sometimes the second year can be worse in ways. I had someone say, ‘Really? You and your husband are still grieving your dad a year later?’ Um, yes. Also, I would encourage people to be aware that grieving is not only for those that were close to a family member. If there was trauma or estrangement in the relationship, there could still be grief and loss of what never was and what now can never be.”
Question 6: In our church we often get prayer requests for people we don’t know. What ways can people be supportive if we know you, but not your loved one? Or if we don’t know you and your family personally, but want to show support?
“Follow through. Actively pray for the person and ask God for ways to show love. Remind the person that you are there and have not forgotten his or her need. Keep extending invitations. Life changes a lot and grievers can be left out.”
“Something that was so touching to me one time is someone told me they have a picture of my daughter on their mantle and they think of her every day. Something like that is incredibly thoughtful and precious.”
“Send cards if an address is provided. Save the address and put a reminder on your calendar to send another card six months or a year later, which will also remind you to pray for them again in the future. And pray for God to provide what they specifically need to bear the trial of loss.”
When you pray for someone, do so sincerely and remember the person’s name.“Sometimes at a church event, you meet someone who recognizes your name because he or she prayed for you, or vice versa. That creates an instant and amazing bond. When you pray for someone, do so sincerely and remember the person’s name. Cards are also wonderful. Being the recipient of many cards is both heartwarming and humbling. If you don’t know what to say on a card, perhaps write out a comforting scripture.”
“Send a message of encouragement. If you have experienced a particular trial of the sort, it is helpful to hear you are not alone.”
“Just show up. Acknowledge the loss. Let them know you are praying for them and their family. Attend the funeral if you are able. Send a card. It doesn’t have to be eloquent, but all the cards and the thoughts matter so much. When you know someone is thinking of you, or has thought of you, and is praying for you, it just gives you something to stand on.”
“There seems to be so much sickness and death in our midst. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with, especially if you don’t know some of them personally. One way to be supportive is to write down dates and addresses and even after a couple of years or sooner, send that family a card, text or message just to say, ‘Thinking of you, and hope you are doing well.’ They don’t necessarily need to know you or you them. Even if a few members did that, that is a few more people who will not be forgotten on their special dates. That special thought at the right time, or any time, can bring a ‘wow’ moment to lift someone up.”
“Meals, financial support, cards. I would encourage people to ask God if He wants you to help and to inspire in what way. Checking up on us after the immediate responses means so much! Oftentimes it feels that the world keeps turning day to day and month to month, and it still feels like yesterday for us.”
“First and foremost, the prayers for this person, by name, of course. If you know the person but not their loved one who is in the prayer request, asking about them regularly, offering supportive care for the caregivers (food, childcare, moral support) is very encouraging. If you don’t know the person in the prayer request, I know people who have been encouraged by cards in the mail, even from strangers.”
Six ways to help someone who’s grieving
Sometimes closure is just the beginning of the grieving process, which makes some experiencing loss come to resent or dislike the word closure.
We wish there was room to include every single response we received, because they further drive home the point that grief is not a cookie-cutter process of stages and benchmarks. It is a dynamic, unexpected and up-and-down roller-coaster ride of emotions and memories.
Through the many responses, some themes seemed to jump right out of the text.
1. Everyone experiences grief differently.
We shouldn’t assume that one size fits all when attempting to console and “be there” for someone. This is why it’s so important to pray to God for guidance on how to be helpful. He can lead you to do or say something that is just what the grieving person needs. (It could be helpful words, a hug, sharing a comforting scripture, writing a card or offering a meal.) Ask God to help you have the courage and motivation to do what is needed.
2. Continually assure a grieving person that his or her loved one is not forgotten.
There is real fear and sadness of a loved one being forgotten, or only remembered as someone’s “family/friend,” rather than a unique individual who had an influence on lives around him or her.
3. Remember that words aren’t always what’s really needed.
In fact, at times our words may actually be the least helpful tool in our toolbox to help others deal with grief. Sometimes words are the easiest thing to give—but at times other expressions of concern are much more helpful, such as just being there to listen, assisting with physical tasks, making food and setting up reminders to encourage them on hard days. Pray and ask God to lead you to do what that person needs most at the time.
4. Avoid “griefsplaining” and schooling others on how they should be grieving.
Saying “I love you” or “I’m here for you” and just showing up can provide all the comfort that is needed. It should go without saying, but never connect grief with a lack of faith. Also, be careful of making statements about how well someone is coping—because what you see on the outside may not tell the whole story of what’s occurring on the inside.
5. Remember the “ball in the box” concept and how it coincides with the personality of the grieving person.
Is this the best time to bring up the loss, or should you offer an enjoyable distraction that allows the person to have a moment in time that isn’t all about loss?
6. Show up.
Just be present and available when you can. Sometimes what grieving people need most is just someone to be there and to talk to.
Some final thoughts
We want to sincerely thank all of those who took this survey, highlighting (and even painfully reliving) their experiences of pain and loss.
We hope these insights will help us all better understand what we can do to comfort those who are grieving.
Paul’s words in Romans 12:10-13, when read in the context of those who are grieving, aptly summarize much of the material in this blog post:
“Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.”
Paul then writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (verse 15).
That is how you help someone who’s grieving.