How to support a grieving family

After a death, there’s nothing you can say to make someone feel better. But don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out.

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What to say
After a death, there’s nothing you can say to make someone feel better. Even if it’s coming from a compassionate place, phrases like “well, they aren’t hurting anymore” or “everything happens for a reason” can come off sounding trite or unhelpful. These comments can almost sound like you’re trying to fix things for the grieving person or that you don’t really want to talk about it, says Candace Ray, director of the Lighthouse for Grieving Children in Oakville, Ont. Instead, she suggests acknowledging or bearing witness to the grief by saying something like, “I am so sorry that this happened. I don’t know what to say.” One of the more helpful actions is to ask how they’re doing today. “Because that question implies you probably have good days, you probably have bad days, and however you are today, I’m asking how you are in this moment,” Ray says.

Illustration of a sad mother holding her kids
It’s the biggest test of my life—raising two kids after my husband died

But don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out. They will need all the support they can get. Ask what you can do to help them through this and let them know that you’re there to listen or just be there for them. They may not feel like talking, but it may be a comfort to not be alone. If you can’t think of anything to say, offer a hug or a squeeze of the hand.

What to do
This family will be forever altered by their loss, and will need support in myriad ways. You could arrange a meal train. Offer to babysit or drive the kids to their activities. Invite the family to social activities (and keep inviting them—it may take months before they are ready). Be there to listen. Collect stories about the person who died from friends and family, and create a memory book for the children. Dealing with death can be very overwhelming, and many grieving parents report feeling out of control. “Take your cues from them—ask them what they need,” says Ray.

What to continue to do
Grief, unfortunately, is not linear. There is no timetable for grief—don’t pressure them to move on or make them feel like they’ve been mourning for too long. “It’s a lifelong process for families—especially for children,” says Ray. At every significant milestone and life transition, those kids are going to revisit their grief. Holidays and special anniversaries may be particularly difficult, and families may need extra support around these times.

Read more:
18 books to help kids cope with death
How to explain death to a child

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