How to Help a Friend in Grief

We recently shared our thoughts and commentary on the Grief Police. In our experience, people were generally bewildered about how to react to our grief, but there were a few shining examples of friends and family who got it right. Don’t be scared of those of us in grief! You can do this.

We want to share a few examples of helpful and kind things people said or did before and following our sister’s death that can be considered as ways to help a friend who is grieving. 

- Send a card. What you write in the card isn't even as important as the gesture of sending one, so don’t let writer’s block stop you. In an informative and touching blog post on A Cup of Jo, Joanna Goddard’s sister, Lucy Kalanithi explains how comforting condolence cards can be to someone in grief.  

"Flip" the bird, available from StupidCancer.org

"Flip" the bird, available from StupidCancer.org

- Express your sympathy, anger, or frustration with what happened to your friend in the normal way you talk. We appreciated swearing and people who simply said “this sucks.” You don’t always need to try to say something profound, or even uplifting. Commiseration can be the best expression of friendship. But please don’t tell anyone, “I know exactly how you feel.”

- Drop off something simple to eat, preferably that could be used another day or frozen and in containers that don’t need to be returned. Coordinating meals with a group is also nice. Or just send beer or wine, which as we've said is always useful. In particular, we appreciated those who brought us food long after the funeral, once we had returned home and tried to return to our lives. Cooking for our families, like most daily chores, seemed overwhelming for months.

- Offer specific things that you can do like, “can I pick your kids up from school on Wednesday for a play date?” Taking the kids AWAY gives your friend a much needed moment to herself and may give the kids an outlet from all the stress that has surrounded them. We found that asking us to let you know if there is anything you can do to help was not actually helpful. So, you are proposing that we catalog our needs, factor in your talents and availability, and then notify you? If we even knew what we needed, that’d be a start.

- Invite us to socialize without any pressure or guilt if we decline. We did not always want to go out into the world, but it was nice to be included. Social anxiety is a common and normal feeling that accompanies grief. Sometimes being social left us feeling like no one related to our experience and reduced any desire for future outings. We worried about whether someone would say something about “it” or, maybe worse, nothing at all, and whether we would ugly cry in public. After socializing, we occasionally felt guilty because we weren’t “fun enough.” You can understand how sometimes it just felt easier to stay home.

- We know that it is difficult to know what to say, but we encourage you to try to say something because it is better than ignoring the large elephant in the room. Here are a few examples of helpful things that people said:

  • You don’t need to respond to this but I wanted to reach out and offer my help / support / presence.
  • I want to meet you for a silent walk. We won’t talk about anything difficult unless you want to.
  • I am thinking of you and want to talk when you are ready.

- Continue sending cards and emails and making phone calls. Grief goes on and on, comes on strong at different points, and feels isolating when everyone else seems to be living their perfect and normal lives. We appreciated the friends who consistently reached out many months or a year after our sister died with calls and emails checking in on us or letting us know they were thinking of us. Some grievers don’t want a lot of attention but others do want to talk about it with a friend. Some days the same person may want attention and other days they want none. In any case, it is probably safe to tell your friend just that you are thinking of them because that in itself is comforting.

We relied on our friends to support us and were able to create this list because of their kind words and gestures. We hope that this list helps you to be a great friend to someone who has lost a very special person.