How to Support a Grieving Family Member or Friend: 6 Principles

Supporting a Griever / Supporting a Griever : Eleanor Haley

It’s common to feel anxious and intimidated in the “grief support” role. This is one of the reasons why otherwise caring people sometimes say hurtful, minimizing, or unhelpful things to their bereaved loved ones and why they sometimes avoid their grieving friends and family members altogether.  Hopefully, if nothing else, all of you reading this after Googling “how to support a grieving friend” will take solace knowing your fear is normal and (likely) not indicative of a personal problem.

Last month several of the people I love experienced the death of someone they love.  I sent flowers, I wrote cards, and said “I’ll be here if you need anything” but overall I felt useless, ineffective, and unhelpful. I knew these friends and family members were entering the darkness of grief and that all I could really offer them was timid encouragement and the offer of support.


I started thinking about this reality (and drawing very bad stick figure cartoons about it) and ultimately decided to turn to our readers to ask for their perspective.  I posted a question on Facebook and Instagram asking our readers what the best thing any person or people did for them in them in the days, weeks, months, and years after their loss.  I expected to get a handful of responses, but instead we received close to 150.

Reading all these responses was an incredibly moving experience and it helped me to realize a few important things.

  1. There are a lot of awesomely supportive family and friends out there.
  2. The things people find helpful are very specific to who they are as people and to their unique circumstances.
  3. Having a good support system is never about any one person saying or doing the exact right thing.  Rather it’s about having a network of support people who come together to help in big and small ways. And it’s the small gestures that are often most appreciated!

I’m sad we can’t share all the responses we received, but if you want to read the individual comments you can go here.  Instead we’d like to share a few themes, or principles, that emerged as most helpful and supportive to grieving individuals.

1.  Send something

In the past we’ve given flowers a bit of a bad rap because, while lovely to have at the services, (1) it’s difficult to know what to do with them afterwards and (2) flowers die and when they do they smell terrible.  The truth is, though, I often send flowers when I feel that it’s appropriate.  If you think the person would appreciate flowers, or if you think that you will be one of the only people who send them, then send them.

Now if you get the sense that many people will send flowers, you may want to think outside of the box.  Some suggestions that people noted as especially helpful include sending/dropping off:

  • Home cooked meals
  • Remembrance items
  • Food and home staples
  • Thoughtful cards and letters
  • Gift cards to somewhere practical or self-care related
  • Items that belonged to the person
  • Care box with self-care items

2. Offer practical support

People often need practical support after the death of a loved one for two reasons (1) because their deceased loved one used to handle certain things and fill certain roles and (2) because grief makes it hard to care about the minutia of day-to-day life.  Ask yourself, what might my loved one need help with and what unique skills do I have to offer?  If you find that you aren’t the best person to help fill a potential need, you might also consider purchasing a gift certificate so your loved one can hire someone at their own convenience (i.e. a cleaning service or a landscaper).


A few examples of helpful practical support that were shared include…

When a friend or family member…

  • Leant a hand with little day-to-day tasks
  • Helped with children or pets
  • Helped the bereaved sort through a loved one’s belonging or helped to clean out a house
  • Helped with yard work
  • Cleaned the house
  • Helped with odd jobs around the house
  • Taught the person how to handle new tasks and responsibilities (i.e. finances, lawn care, childcare, etc)
  • Sent meals
  • Gave them a place to stay when they didn’t want to stay alone in their home
  • Accompanied them on certain outings

3. Be there

Many people expressed that friends and family “being there”, physically and/or emotionally, was one of the most helpful gifts a person could have given them after their loved one died. To clarify, “being there” goes beyond a vague and non-comital – “let me know if you need anything”.  Let’s be honest, this is often the last phrase someone utters before going MIA on their grieving family member or friend. Not helpful.


Examples of how to “be there” in a real way vary, but include some of the following:

When a supportive friend or family member…

  • Physically showed up during the bereaved’s time of need
  • Continued to check in on a regular basis via text message or phone
  • Regularly offered a simple “I love you” or “I’m thinking of you”
  • Shared meals with the bereaved when they knew they were struggling to eat alone
  • Called just to talk
  • Offered a real hug
  • Offered a hanky
  • Offered sincere and simple words of support and encouragement

4. Help them take a break

One of my favorite grief theories, the Dual Process Model, says that a griever will oscillate between confronting their loss and avoiding the loss. Under this model, seeking respite from grief is a healthy part of coping.  This makes sense, right?  Sometimes a person needs a little time to feel normal or to engage in activities that give them a boost of positive emotion.  This being the case, it may be helpful to offer or encourage distraction; with the caveat that you should never push a person to minimize, move on, or forget their loss and with the understanding that their grief could overcome them at any moment (especially in the early days) and thats okay.


Some of the things that people noted as providing positive distraction include….

  • Laughter
  • Sharing positive memories of their loved one
  • Taking them out for a meal
  • Taking them to the movies or on other recreational outings
  • Accompanying them to parties or other social gatherings

5. Be willing to “go there” with them

Something people often express their appreciation for is having friends and family who are willing to be present for the sad and uncomfortable moments without trying to fix them and without showing fear, discomfort, or judgment.


Being willing to “go there” with a bereaved individual can mean many things.  A few noted examples include…

When friends or family members were willing to…

  • Be present for the tears, anger, and outbursts without judgment
  • Sit in silence
  • Talk about the person who died – say their name, share memories, bring them up
  • Just let the bereaved person cry
  • Offer validation and/or normalize the experience
  • Truly listen (without trying to offer advice)
  • Accept the person’s grief months and even years later

6. Don’t forget

Part of being a supportive family member or friend is understanding that grief is, in many ways, a forever thing.  Your loved one doesn’t just need your support in the immediate aftermath of loss, but also in the years to come.  Days like anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, weddings, and graduations may forever land somewhere on the spectrum of sad to bittersweet.


You can show your ongoing support for a grieving loved one by doing the following…

  • Sending a card or checking in on the days you think may be difficult
  • Recognizing that the certain times of year, like the time of year when their loved one died, may be difficult
  • Continuing to share memories and to talk about their loved one
  • Continuing to randomly (or regularly) check in with the person
  • Acknowledging that happy days may be somewhat bittersweet
  • Acknowledging that the person who died is always with them

Have we missed something?  Share your feedback below in the comments section.  

Let’s be grief friends.

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40 Comments on "How to Support a Grieving Family Member or Friend: 6 Principles"

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  1. Robin N  May 11, 2020 at 12:43 am Reply

    My husband of 33 years died 2 years ago. There are still times I feel like nothing is worth doing. I realize that few people understand that grief is not over in any specific amount of time. And that the person who is grieving can tell who is just saying trite words and who really cares — and that caring is often shown with their phone call or visit, and their willingness to talk about it. So I believe authenticity is the most important thing. And next is getting out of your comfort zone when it comes to consoling someone. Do something — send a card. Bake cookies. Ask if he or she wants to go somewhere with you. Give the person who’s grieving a purpose — even it it’s just for that day. Give them a goal and a distraction — especially in the evenings after work and on weekends. Trust me — he or she is looking for something to do besides cry. And saying call me if you need anything is a cop out. The person is not going to call you. Because the grieving person doesn’t know what he needs most of time. All he or she knows is that her best friend is gone. So if you want to help, be there. Even if it’s just a short visit, or driving with them to the gravesite or meeting for a cup of coffee.
    By the way, this is a fantastic forum. Great insights. Thank you so much!

  2. Christine  March 17, 2020 at 3:15 pm Reply

    Loved your article! One thing I’d like to add is the overuse of texting. My dad recently died and most of my friends, close friends, texted me their condolences and offer of help… Not Helpful! Weeks later they’d “check in” and ask how I’m doing. Really? I’m supposed to sit and pour out my feelings in a text of my emotional state? I find it selfish that people can’t “check in” with a phone call, listen to people, HEAR what’s going on with them. Be present! Anyone you love that’s grieving deserves a phone call.

  3. Ben  March 13, 2020 at 5:10 pm Reply

    Hi, my childhood friend just passed a way. Would it be appropriate to give his family a home cooked meal?

  4. Emma Tylor  November 13, 2019 at 2:50 am Reply

    Great article! very supportive and Being there for someone is really important.

  5. Andy Chaet  October 23, 2019 at 12:47 pm Reply

    Hi As a Grief Support Specialist aka bereavement counselor for hospice ,I have enjoyed your articles and advice. The deathaversary can be difficult. However ,there are so many other special days and dates that trigger memories .I often ask myself ” I wish Mom were here to tell her about this” or” Am I using the right pan for this dish?”
    Many clients are comfortable in group settings. They realize they are not alone .They may hear thoughts and ideas from others that they were not aware of. Often, in private sessions, some have said “I thought I had it rough. That other person is having a truly difficult time. ”
    Keep up the good work WYG . Thank you

    • Dana  February 7, 2020 at 7:41 pm Reply

      Hi there – a couple weeks ago my dad passed away – very sudden, and very young. It is just me (his daughter), my brother, and my mom. I want to make sure that my brother and mom will be ok through this. What can I do to help them through this?

  6. Trish Vaden  October 20, 2019 at 8:46 am Reply

    Thank you for all these ideas. Any thoughts on how to support a loved one who is grieving when they live far away? We will be able to go to the memorial service and stay for a couple of days. After that, I’ll send cards and check in but that just doesn’t seem like enough.

  7. Funeral services  October 3, 2019 at 7:11 am Reply

    Very helpful article and I totally agree. I believe one should understand what is Grief and how different people react to someone you love is taken away. Grief is a natural response to loss, emotional suffering or pain of loss can feel overwhelming when someone you love is taken away. We can console them my sending then flowers or being there for them, support them.

  8. Des  March 9, 2019 at 5:10 am Reply

    The father of our only child has passed away my girl is 13years of age I know that though she doesn’t display and emotions of sadness she is still feeling guilty and regretful about putting off going to spend weekends with him or simply contacting him through text . I am left with out any financial support to help secure her future or simply provide her with the necessities of her everyday life to top that off I recently became laid off from work I would like to start a fundraiser campaign so I can better secure her future and essential needs ,she deserves to grieve and not be worried about what’s going to happen to our home and if we will be able too afford food etc. I’m in a financial bind and quite frankly don’t know how to word my request on the campaign page and would like some help on doing so

    • Harmony  April 16, 2019 at 12:05 am Reply

      You might try talking to any local churches in your area. Even if you are not religious or a church member sometimes churches have helpful funds for just those kind of needs and they might also have grief support groups too that could help direct you to other resources that might be more useful if what they have there is not a good fit for you. Perhaps there would even be someone there who could help you with the wording for the fundraiser mentioned? It might not be a perfect fit, but it might be a place to start if you are not sure of where to start looking? I’m so very sorry that you are experiencing such a painful situation.

    • Mary Grace Umlauf  May 8, 2019 at 9:00 am Reply

      Perhaps you have probably explored this option …

      Your daughter should be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits until age 18 based on her father’s SSI contributions.

  9. A  March 5, 2019 at 1:51 pm Reply

    My friend passed away in a motorcycle accident last Saturday. He left behind 6 kids, his mom, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins. I met a few of them in passing the last 16 years. How do I, a friend of the desease, help the family? Is offering to wash the kids clothes inappropriate? Or any other every day duties like that? I just don’t know his family well and they don’t know me. I don’t want to over step.

    • Diana M  July 13, 2019 at 9:11 pm Reply

      Since you met people in passing, don’t offer to do something too personal such as washing clothes, however you could send a gift card for food or something along those lines. When our son died I appreciated my neighbor cutting my grass but would not have felt comfortable with her doing my laundry as we were not good friends.

  10. Joanna Steele  February 27, 2019 at 6:17 pm Reply

    My sister and 3 brothers died also my cousin
    Were all in their sixties
    Have had to go it alone not one of my family have asked how I am
    I know I’m still grieving for each one of them
    Feel no one respects the death of a loved one or they don’t know what to say
    But just a visit now and again would help it would know that they were thinking of me

    • Linda J Kirby  May 28, 2019 at 2:39 pm Reply

      I am sad reading this even five months after your loss. I am sorry for your loss, and the way your family members have left you feeling alone. That is so wrong of them to do so..I hope your doing better, and hope they have reached out to you after your post here God bless you

  11. Lori  January 24, 2019 at 9:52 pm Reply

    A very nice article, it will be almost 2 years since my sister was killed, not only my sister, my best friend. Sometimes I don’t think I can do this anymore, it is so hard without my sister and best friend. Nobody comes around, nobody even talk about her at the memorial, I guess they thought it was an obligation to come.

    • Laura  October 6, 2019 at 9:43 pm Reply

      I’m so sad to read that you feel so alone and unsupported. I lost my sister 20 years ago and she was my best friend in the world and it was like the world slipped off its axis. Everything changed. I didn’t have very many people who could listen or relate to what I was going through. I ended up getting a grief counsellor and going to bereavement groups and finding people who would listen (new friends). But it wasn’t easy. I did a lot of journalling to get my feelings out, wrote poems, and wrote letters to my sister in my journal to tell her how I missed her and loved her.
      People are afraid of grief sometimes and even if they care, they don’t know how to support us or even approach us because either they just don’t understand it (how could they?) or they are afraid of doing the wrong thing. Especially if the death was particularly traumatic. They may not even be able to deal with their own feelings about the situation. Even my husband, who knows me better than anyone now that my sister is gone, often doesn’t know what to do or say, even now 20 years later. That’s pretty normal. It’s unfortunate, but normal.
      It can feel pretty lonely dealing with grief – only we had that special relationship with our sisters and only we know how hard it is to live without them. No one else had the same relationships we had with them.
      I hope that you do find someone who can relate a little – someone who has had a profound loss – that you can talk to and tell them about your sister and how special she was. As time went on I did find friends like that – usually people who had been through their own profound loss.
      I’m sorry you are having such a difficult time. My thoughts are with you.

  12. Mary Nichols  January 22, 2019 at 2:17 pm Reply

    Thank you, this is great. I find a lot of my family and friends have a hard time just saying his name. They feel like it is going to remind me that he’s gone. I know he’s gone, I think about it every second of every day. Jeff, Jeff, Jeff, just say his name, tell me your memories of him, tell me the funny stories. I miss every aspect of his being, help me by talking about him.

    • Cheryl  February 22, 2019 at 10:23 pm Reply

      I’ve said this same thing almost word-for-word! I’m glad Jeff lived and was special to you. I know you miss him terribly. 💐

  13. John  March 30, 2018 at 9:31 am Reply

    The most important to me is “ Do not disappear.” At the time in someone’s life that needs all the support they can get.

  14. John  March 30, 2018 at 9:31 am Reply

    The most important to me is “ Do not disappear.” At the time in someone’s life that needs all the support they can get.

  15. sylvie  October 26, 2017 at 5:46 pm Reply

    Please don’t keep asking me if I am going to a grief group, or telling me all about them. I know they are there. They are amazing supports for many. But please don’t try to ease your own angst about how I am doing by assuming that if I am in a grief group all is well and taken care of. I am doing my work, my way, with those around me, books, music and experiences that I need.

  16. sylvie  October 26, 2017 at 5:46 pm Reply

    Please don’t keep asking me if I am going to a grief group, or telling me all about them. I know they are there. They are amazing supports for many. But please don’t try to ease your own angst about how I am doing by assuming that if I am in a grief group all is well and taken care of. I am doing my work, my way, with those around me, books, music and experiences that I need.

    • Nicki Cosby  May 31, 2019 at 4:49 am Reply

      Hi Sylvie,
      I agree.

      Take care

  17. Susan  June 19, 2017 at 12:30 pm Reply

    Sorry. Not all or perhaps any of these ideas help some people. For me they just have intense irritation. I wished them and still do wish people would keep out of my life most of the time. Even now, 19 months from his death if I do something supposedly nice I drop to the bottom of an abyss the next day and days after. Nothing I do gives me pleasure. I do it, it ends, that’s it. No pleasure no memories worth holding

    • Kristi  November 19, 2017 at 9:13 am Reply

      Wish I was there to just sit with you in the room and say and do nothing. But just to let you know that should you need or want anything (food, a hug, conversation, a pillow to throw at me) I am there for you.

  18. Jill Malcolm  December 6, 2016 at 7:51 pm Reply

    Incredibly helpful article! When my Dad died flowers and cards meant so much. It showed people cared. Prayers are so sweet too. One of my friends from South America knew I was having a hard day as my Dad’s birthday was approaching. She said in her culture the family would gather and make that person’s favorite meal and celebrate their life. I liked that and I do it every year now. And going on long walks and talking helps too. Thank you!

  19. Patricia  November 17, 2016 at 6:42 pm Reply

    Well done and needed for so many.
    Just lost my husband of 46 years less then 3 months ago. Many people at the service offered their help – anything I needed. There were at least a dozen people who said they would be in touch soon and come to help. In 3 months 2 cousins have come to my home. One cousin took me out for a drive to a beautiful fall location, stopped for lunch and then browsed through a shop she knew I loved and it was the first time anyone had said, do you want to go out somewhere just to give you a change and some fresh air. She cleared everything with me first which is so important as what may seem like such a good idea to the person trying to help, it may be too much for the grieving person. The other cousin came and just sat and talked about so many things that Jim and myself did together. How many friends he had and that everyone loved him. There were some tears but there was also some smiles. She stayed for the whole day and promised she would be back the following week and perhaps we could go out if I was up to it. I was able to get some sleep for the first time without crying myself to sleep. Such a simple thing brought me such a time of comfort.

    This article had so many things that I have thought before. Where did everywhere go? I did not realize how many people did back off either because they were uncomfortable or did not know when or what was appropriate.

    I think a small booklet giving the thoughts and ideas that was explained so well here, would be a wonderful addition in an appropriate place where the service is held. So many that could be thinking the same questions could find it so very helpful.

    . My very best friend since we were in high school came to the funeral and then she just disappeared. That hurt me so much. I finally, thinking something must be wrong on her end, decided to phone her just to be certain all was ok and when I did it was so strange as she never even asked how I was doing nor gave me an explanation as to why I had not heard from her. We are close as sisters but it was so evident how uncomfortable my phone call had made her feel.

    This is such a very,very important list of ideas and feelings that it needs to be spread to as many as possible.

    I have many days that I cry all day long being alone most all the time. Part of me died with him and I am certain the hole in my heart can never be filled.

    My brother flew in from Colorado and stayed for two weeks and my two daughters were such a gift as they took over everything from notifying people, to accompanying me to the funeral home to plan everything, from preparing a beautiful slide presentation in two parts of the home that played quietly in the background with their father’s life from his growing years to our wedding, graduations of his daughters, their weddings, and each grandchild (all six of them) in many stages. They were the most important part of our lives now and gifts from God.

    I was so grateful for all that was done to make the worst days of my life bearable and even my grandchildren took part.

    In closing though, Come the time that they each had to return to their lives,that the loneliness and the fact that he was gone forever hit me full force. This is the time I feel that the friends and family members are most needed. I still wake in the morning and for a brief moment think I hear his voice in the other room and the tears begin again.

  20. Nail Polish Society  November 8, 2016 at 11:48 pm Reply

    Thank you for this! I’ve always felt that this was a huge weakness of mine, not knowing how to help, so I often do nothing. I’m saving this and will refer to it often!

  21. Trish  November 8, 2016 at 7:47 am Reply

    “Being there” really is so important. After my husband died (I was 32 with 2 very small boys), my sister moved in – even into my bed to help me with the middle of the night feedings/changings with a newborn, to help drive, sort mail, write thank you notes, etc. She was an angel. Dear friends came over, ate with me, went to the store with me, laughed and cried with me. My husband’s friends came over one Saturday and did yardwork and little things around the house. I also remember when my mom’s best friend’s teenage son suddenly died, my mom just went to her friend’s house to just “be there” with her. She brought her mail and listened to the radio and made her lunch so her friend was not alone. Attending a support group is, I believe, key to healing. Grieving with peer support on a consistent basis is cathartic and I have witnessed people emerging from their cave of grief. In the end, grief sucks. It just does. But when you have some tools to help navigate this journey, it certainly makes it a bit easier.

  22. Leah  November 7, 2016 at 10:45 pm Reply

    We just talked about this in a grief group tonight. Even when you have gone through it, it’s hard to know what to say or do.

  23. Sienna  November 7, 2016 at 10:16 pm Reply

    Lovely & important work, thank you for sharing this.

  24. Jan O'Brien  November 7, 2016 at 9:41 pm Reply

    Very good. I want people to acknowledge the “hole” in my life. I don’t want to be told to remember the “good times” and that she’s in a better place. I know that and I do remember the good times, but I’m here and she’s not.

    • Linda A Miller  November 25, 2016 at 9:50 pm Reply

      Wow, do I ever understand what you mean a “hole” left in your life. I keep telling people,” I just miss him so much.” My brother was taken from me to soon. Thank you for expressing that.

  25. Mary Weis  November 7, 2016 at 10:27 am Reply

    I loved this article! We feel so supported and blessed because of all the beautiful support we received–including flowers! The people who reached out us made us feel so cared about. Words can’t really express their presence in my life.

  26. Laird  November 7, 2016 at 9:20 am Reply

    Outstanding piece!

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