Five Tips to Support Others In Times of Grief

Empathic communication is key.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

by Rebecca Epstein and Alexis Dallara-Marsh

My first child died in my womb in 2014. It was unexpected and traumatic for me. But just as difficult was the response of many others or lack there-of. For many, opening up conversations about sensitive topics are avoided at all costs, mainly because of inexperience.

To say 2020 has been a year full of grief is probably an understatement. From the coronavirus pandemic to the ongoing social injustices that have propagated for centuries, many Americans have been left hurting and lonesome. When someone else is suffering through the loss of a loved one, bystanders often feel helpless on how to begin to help.

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It has often been said you can't teach it, and a person either has it or they don't. Multiple studies have proven otherwise, however, and its importance cannot be understated. Having the appropriate actions and words can serve many purposes, including alleviating suffering and instilling hope.

It is crucial others in despair know you care. Here are five quick tips to consider:

Seek permission. Ask if one wants to talk or be left alone. Sometimes a person can be overwhelmed at the onset or after talking for a certain amount of time. Continue to reach out with the understanding that one's feelings are dynamic and will likely "ebb and flow" over time.

It is okay to be silent. Sitting quietly with others and having one know you are there for support can be therapeutic in itself. When grief is new, people may not have even had the chance to process their emotions. Silence gives others the opportunity to express themselves, both verbally and non-verbally.

Avoid judging or making assumptions. Compassionate care recognizes that this is about them, not us. Each of us has different inherent biases based on unique personal experiences. Ask for ways you may help: Some families may feel overwhelmed around the home with meal preparation. Those who have a religious background may derive comfort from religious services (i.e. Catholics having a mass said for their loved one, for example).

Recognize that grief can come in stages or waves. Don’t assume that another’s experience of grief is invariable or uniform. Being supportive may look different at different times so be flexible and adaptable. Continue to assess how you can be the best source of comfort.

If communication does not go well. Learn from your mistakes and allow yourself to be forgiven so that you can do better next time. No one is perfect but at the least, make an effort to show you care.

While there is no formula or script to best care for others, every effort is valid and can help to alleviate the burden of grief. Feeling for others through communicating or simply being present and being accommodating can make all the difference.

Are there any tips that you have found particularly helpful in supporting others during times of grief? We would love to hear them. Comment below!