How to Help When a Friend Is Grieving

Watching a friend grieve the death of a loved one is hard. You might not know what to say or do. You might fear to say the wrong thing and decide to say nothing at all. This, of course, can leave your friend feeling abandoned in her time of need.

So what can you say or do when a friend is grieving? Here are some suggestions to help you help your friend.

Close-up hands of grieving woman holding hand of friend
David McNew / Stringer / Getty Images

Just Listen

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Just listen to your friend. But it’s actually a lot more difficult than you think. Listening involves devoting your full attention to what someone else is saying without talking. It’s natural for us to hear what someone is saying and then want to interject our own thoughts or opinions. This is not what your friend needs.

Your friend just wants to feel listened to. She’ll feel more comfortable opening up to you if she feels like you won’t judge her or offer your own advice. Allow her to share her thoughts and feelings with you while resisting the urge to offer her your opinions or advice.

But what if listening to your friend leaves you feeling uncomfortable? Empathizing with a friend's grief can be difficult and might bring to the surface your own fears of death. If you find yourself overwhelmed, it's okay to take a step back. There are other ways you can help.

Offer a Hug

Physical contact can be very therapeutic. Offering your friend a hug or just putting your arm around her lets her know you’re there for her. Women are generally more comfortable with this type of physical contact than men but if your friend is a man, a soft touch on his back or forearm will have the same effect.

Some people aren’t comfortable with any physical contact and that’s okay. It could be that your friend doesn’t feel ready for it yet and that’s okay too. If you offer a hug or gentle touch and your friend turns it down, don’t feel discouraged. There are other ways you can show you care.

Be Present

Your friend may not feel ready to talk and might not want to be hugged. She might want to be alone with her grief for a time and that’s okay. If that’s the case, just being present is enough. Let her know that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to talk right now but that you’ll be there when and if she does.

Offer Practical Help

You may not be able to say or do anything to lessen your friend’s grief but you can help her in practical ways. Some ideas that she may appreciate:

  • Organize a group of people to bring her family meals
  • Watch her children for an afternoon or run her morning carpool
  • Pick up some of her duties at work for a while
  • Bring her groceries

By relieving some of the burdens of daily life, you’ll be giving your friend the gift of time.

Be Yourself

If your friend has lost a loved one, their whole world has changed. They need to be able to count on the few things that haven’t changed, like your friendship. You might be tempted to tread carefully around your friend, dampening your humor or avoiding certain topics. Don’t change because you think it’s what she needs or wants. Continue to be yourself and, if your friend feels up to it, continue doing the things you enjoy doing together.

Keep in mind that grief lessens over time but never goes away. A piece of your friend is forever changed but your friendship can continue to thrive. Offering her your time and energy is a gift that she will be forever grateful for.

By Angela Morrow, RN
Angela Morrow, RN, BSN, CHPN, is a certified hospice and palliative care nurse.