9 min read

How to Support Someone Who is Grieving

Support your loved one through grief with these actionable tips, brought to you by our team of compassionate death experts and supporting psychologists.

Woman providing emotional support to friend

Trigger warning: This article discusses depression and suicide. If you need support please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36.

Getting Good at Grief Support

Everyone grieves differently, but difficult emotions and physical symptoms are part of a natural response to death of a loved one. Significant loss can come as a huge shock, and the sadness and grief which follow can quickly feel overwhelming. Generating a huge impact on daily life, it's valuable to know how to support your friends and family at this difficult time.

What is Grief?

Grief is the way we respond to loss, particularly the death of a loved one. While expert analysis dating back to the 1950s pigeonholed the process into 5 common stages, there is no conventional structure to the way people grieve.

Everyone goes through the process in their own way. Some of the emotions which can come up throughout a period of mourning include shock, sadness, denial, depression, anger and acceptance. Some can even feel guilty, and with prolonged or complicated grief these feelings can last for months or years for some people.

How Can You Support Someone Who is Grieving?

There are many ways you can support a bereaved person after a major loss. Like grief, support can take many shapes and forms including organising face-to-face catch ups, offering help with funeral arrangements or household chores or simply sitting and listening. This will differ from person to person, but we've outlined a few tips below to help you provide support under most circumstances.

1. Try to understand the process

Grief can present in many different ways and it's important not to judge someone for acting in a certain way, feeling certain emotions or for responding differently than you'd expect.

After all, there is no ‘right' or ‘wrong' way of coping with loss. Dan Auerbach, Director of Associated Counsellors and Psychologists Sydney told Safewill one of the best ways of supporting someone is by being a good listener.

“Open yourself up to the person's experience, try to listen from their point of view, try to listen without judgement and try not to give advice,'' he said. “Bear in mind a lot of people are going to be in a state of shock, distress or potentially anger. There's lots of different feelings that are going to come out.

2. Spend time being present

For someone who is grieving the first few days can be some of the most difficult as they struggle to comprehend what has happened. Whether they want to talk or not, it can make a big difference to have someone checking in regularly- making them feel supported and able to share their feelings if needed.

Whilst it's important to respect boundaries at this time, it's also important to offer support and presence where possible.

“It's sometimes an uncomfortable and unusual experience to have to be near such strong emotions, but the ability to be with and bear witness to the grieving person is a real gift. Being able to stay near someone when they are distressed might feel like we are not offering much help, but it's enormously helpful.” Mr Auerbach said.

“Stay present, stay close, and understand that while it might be uncomfortable for you, the grieving person is often enormously supported by a calm and caring presence.

3. Offer practical support

Someone who is mourning may be feeling overwhelmed, and struggling to keep up to date with their chores and other responsibilities. Lending a helping hand to reduce someone's workload can be a helpful way to support someone during grief.

It could be as simple as helping with household chores, picking up or dropping off kids to school, providing cooked meals, walking the dog etc. In this way, supporting friends and family doesn't have to look or feel like offering counselling and support through their emotions.

Rather, it's an opportunity to provide practical support with administrative tasks and being present. Even helping with admin surrounding burial or funeral arrangements can also take a huge weight off their shoulders.

4. Watch out for unhealthy behaviours

While it can be destructive to give someone advice during the grieving process, there may reach a point where support from family and friends is not enough. While there is no fixed time frame for how long someone should experience grief, if their symptoms aren't getting better over time it may warrant calling in a professional.

Some of the warning signs which could signal the need for professional support include:

  • Failing to show up to work or school;

  • Neglecting personal hygiene;

  • The inability to enjoy life;

  • Hallucinations;

  • Drug or alcohol abuse;

  • Depression or self harm; and

  • Talking about dying or suicide

Grief can bring a complex of intense and difficult feelings. Trying to navigate this mix of anger, anxiety, shock and sadness after a death can quickly get overwhelming and feel isolating if those around you 'don;t get it'.

Attending a bereavement support group or seeking counselling from support services can help a bereaved person connect with people who understand their feelings and experience. Whether it's connecting with professionals or people who have also experienced a recent loss too, it's likely that seeking support in this way will equip them with some useful advice.

If you're the friend or family member of someone grieving, it can be helpful to direct them to these services. As a supportive friend, your'e role is not necessarily to give advice- and in many ways it can be unhelpful.

With this in mind, let's turn to a few things most people should avoid saying when trying to support someone through grief and loss.

What should you avoid saying?

While there is no rulebook for how to communicate with someone who is grieving, there are certain things you can say which could do more harm than good. This is part of the reason it can be more useful to focus your energy on listening, rather than feeling like you have to say something to try and make someone feel better.

Try to steer clear of statements starting with ‘you should' or ‘you will'.

This is effectively giving someone unsolicited advice and could cause them to lash out or cut off contact with yourself or their support network. Everyone grieves differently, and for some people it can be unhelpful to tell people their grief “is not going to last forever” or “it will get better”.

This can diminish the way they are feeling and cause someone to shut down and close down lines of communication.

Psychotherapist Dan Auerbach said people may instinctively shy away from talking about the deceased but that is not always the best strategy.

“Do not avoid mentioning the name of the person they have lost, do not avoid speaking about that person,” he said. “Invite conversation and invite memories.

If the person does not want to talk about it then respect those wishes. On the other hand, you don't want to put them in a situation where the topic becomes taboo.

How long does the grieving process last?

There is no set time frame for how long someone will experience grief. It may last weeks, months or even years.

For some people it might seem they have processed it quickly but it may show back up at any moment. Sights, sounds, or smells can trigger someone to think about their loved one and plunge them right back into mourning.

Those triggers could be something simple as hearing a song on a radio, finding a possession belonging to the deceased or catching a waft of perfume or cologne they used to wear. Understanding that your friend might need support months or even years after their loss is an integral part of helping them to heal.

Grief can take on new waves and people cope in different ways, so it's important to let go of expectations for how this could look, as well as how long it could go on for.

Getting professional support in Australia

If you are at a point where you think you or your loved ones may benefit from professional support or bereavement counselling, there is a wealth of free and paid resources available. This can be especially relevant for cases where a death sparks prolonged grief, which lasts for months at a time.

The federal government operates a scheme where you can receive 20 fully, or partially subsidised sessions with a psychologist or counsellor each year. To access this support you will need to contact your GP and book an appointment to complete a Mental Health Treatment Plan. Before booking your appointment you should research psychologists to find someone who may be a good fit for you.

The GP will give you a questionnaire to determine if you are eligible and if you are experiencing a high level of anxiety or depression they can refer you to your psychologist of choice. The GP can also prescribe pharmaceutical options to help you manage your symptoms.

The following not-for-profit organisations also offer free support for people who are struggling.

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement also offers counselling and support free of charge to all Victorians. The centre itself is not a crisis service like those listed above but operates as a support network to assist people to find the resources they need to support them through the grieving process.

This guide to grief support wouldn't be possible without the advice of Psychotherapist Dan Auerbach. He is the Founder and Co-Director of Associated Counsellors & Psychologists which offers specialised grief and bereavement counselling. Dan has extensive experience working in mental health having worked as a psychotherapist for almost two decades.

How Safewill Can Help

Safewill offers an affordable, flexible and compassionate service to plan your cremation. Admin and end of life paperwork is the last thing on anyone's mind whilst dealing with grief and loss- so our experts are here to take off the strain.

Call one of our dedicated funeral planners for a one-to-one chat on how we can support you. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on1300 730 639, or via livechat now.

Last updated 15th November 2021
Louise Ayling
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