5 ways to support a friend going through grief

One of the hardest conversations we'll have post-pandemic is about grief. Here's how to approach it sensitively and be a supportive friend.

As we enjoy the long-anticipated sunshine and revel in our newfound freedoms, many of us are gleefully leaving the grey skies of lockdown behind. But for those who have lost loved ones, the scars of the height of the pandemic are still fresh. If you’re working through that grief, it can be hard to watch friends and family move on from the events of the past year without a second thought – and even harder to admit to them that you’re struggling. 

Want to support a grieving friend but not sure what to say – or crucially, what not to say? Here are five ways to approach the most difficult post-pandemic conversation with sensitivity, informed by some lived advice from the hosts of the Good Mourning podcast.

Let them know you’re there 

Whether it’s a fear of ruining the barbeque vibes or a reluctance to upset others, some people might pretend they’re absolutely fine. Let your friend know that you’re there if they want to open up, and that you’re ready for an emotional chat if that’s what they need. 

And when you make those promises, stick to them. Co-hosts of the Good Mourning podcast Sally Douglas and Imogen Carn emphasised the importance of being reliable: “Show up when you say you will. Grief is incredibly lonely and we can really look forward to social connection, so don’t commit to something with a grieving friend if you think you might flake at a later date.” 

But equally, accept if they’re not ready to talk

Sometimes the best support you can offer is a distraction, and some people might not be comfortable talking about their emotions in public after months of processing it privately. Sally and Imogen advise that it’s best to “avoid saying “how are you”, as chances are they aren’t great.” Instead, they suggest you try “how are you doing today?”, as “this small shift in language allows the griever to honestly open up about how they are feeling in the moment and truly express themselves.” 

If they still seem reluctant to share, don’t push them – they’ll open up if and when they’re ready, and forcing the wounds open under the guise of being supportive could become a bump on their road to healing. 

Avoid excessive positivity 

While wallowing in the sadness of a loss might feel counterproductive, trying to find the positives in everything your friend shares isn’t as helpful as you may think. Celebrating the life of their loved one is a lovely gesture and it’s important to remember them fondly. But countering their emotions with a silver lining every time can make them feel like you’re invalidating their sadness, and could lead them to feel like they can’t be totally honest with you next time. 

This goes for faith, too. If your friend isn’t particularly religious, saying things like “it’s part of God’s plan” or “they’re in a better place” won’t mean anything, and could make them feel even bleaker about their loss. 

Sally and Imogen say that there’s no need to walk on eggshells when it comes to naming the person they’ve lost: “You might think that it will upset the person grieving, but it is the opposite – the one name we often want to hear is that of the person who has passed.”

And whatever you do, definitely don’t use the phrase “it could be worse!”.

Walk the walk 

Actually reaching out in response to offers to help can make you feel like a burden, so go the extra mile. Instead of a vague “let me know if you need anything!”, go ahead and drop off some shopping, offer to do the school run one week or find your own way of lifting some of the weight.

 It doesn’t always have to be errands. You could:

  • Throw together a self-care pack and offer to take the kids for an evening.
  • Plan a movie night with their favourite comfort film. 
  • Bake some cookies (or other comfort treats) and drop them off – or stay for a cuppa
  • If they don’t seem ready to socialise just yet, a simple card to remind them you’re thinking of them and available to chat whenever they feel ready to come out can go a long way. 

Recognise that smaller griefs are still valid

We’ve lost a lot over the past year. Weddings were postponed, graduations cancelled and other momentous life moments fell victim to lockdown restrictions. The feeling of grief isn’t just caused by the loss of a loved one, and other forms can still have a big impact. Avoid minimising the importance of smaller sadnesses by comparing them to the grief caused by death and recognise that the loss of these moments is a valid reason to feel sad. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for us all, and the last thing we need is to be judged for the feelings that lockdown has caused. 

Want some more resources or places to refer a grieving friend for help? Here’s a handy list by Good Grief.