When You Care for One Who’s Grieving

by James E. Miller

Sometimes the news comes as a shock. Someone we know has died, perhaps suddenly or tragically. Someone has been injured, seriously or permanently. Someone has learned they must live with a painful debilitation, or they are to die of a terminal disease. Someone's family life has been thrown into upheaval by a tragic turn of events.
     Other times the news comes not as a surprise, but it is no less saddening. A couple we've long known announces their impending divorce. A friend's career comes to an early and unfortunate end. Someone we've loved eventually dies after many months of decline.
     When we hear the news, we think first of those affected most directly: he who was killed, or she who will soon die, or they who must live with the consequences of their own actions, or the actions of others.
     And then we think just as surely of those who are equally affected, though in other ways: the ones who now survive that death, or the ones whose lives are drastically changed now that disease has invaded their family, or the ones who struggle to understand why something so tragic should happen to someone they love, or to themselves.
     Eventually we come to this thought: “Now that this has happened to someone I know, how shall I respond? What shall I say? What shall I do?”
     It's not unusual to feel uncomfortable at times like this. What can we say when we feel so tongue-tied, so awkward in the face of this news? What should we do when we haven't experienced this kind of situation before? What would this other person most want from us, and how can we be sure?
     Not surprisingly, there are no ready-made answers. Situations vary. Relationships differ in closeness and in history. People are unique in how they respond and what they might expect. What works for one may not work for another.
     Yet some response on our part is called for. Someone we know is hurting. Someone deserves our attention. Someone may be crying out for help, however quietly.

Acknowledge what has happened.

     After a serious loss has shaken the life of someone they know, people sometimes say to themselves, “I don't want to upset them by mentioning what has happened, so I'll just sidestep it in conversation.” Or they decide, “They know how I feel anyway, so I don't need to tell them.” Or, “I just don't know what to say in circumstances like that, so I'd best not say anything at all.”
     Behind these words may be people's fears that their awkwardness will embarrass them. They may be afraid that what they say or do will be misunderstood or rejected. They may fear they will “break down” and cry.
     Truth is, those who are grieving a loss and facing major change generally appreciate having their situation acknowledged by those they know and respect. It communicates to them that others recognize the significance of what has happened. It validates their tumultuous feelings. It links them with a community of others who care, and it provides visible evidence that support is likely to be there in the future when they need it. And acknowledging this loss serves as a bridge--a bridge from life-as-it-used-to-be to life-as-it-is-today. Unless you communicate to the other person that you know what has happened and what your feelings are, you cannot proceed to deal realistically with her or him.
     There are many ways to make this acknowledgment, depending on your relationship with the other person and your own level of comfort. You might telephone them, voicing your sympathy and offering your help. You might express what you feel the next time you see that person, wherever it is, assuming you expect to see them soon. You might send a card, or write a short note, or spell out your thoughts in a longer letter. You might choose to deliver a dish or a meal, or send a flower or a plant, or perform some other act of kindness, all as a way of saying, “I know this has happened to you and you are on my mind.”
     Sometimes this calls for special sensitivity. In rare circumstances a person or a family may deny their loss has occurred. Or they may not be prepared to admit it to others just yet. But most people who have lost something they treasure or someone they love will appreciate being reminded that others understand the seriousness of what has happened. They may not remember exactly the words you spoke or what you did in that first encounter, but they will not forget you were there. And they are likely to draw meaning from what you chose to do.


Jim Miller has many more suggestions about helping someone through a time of grief in his innovative double book How Can I Help?: 12 Things to Do When Someone You Know Suffers a Loss. The other side is entitled What Will Help Me? and is designed for grieving people themselves. More information about this and other resources is available here.