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Supporting a grieving friend or relative

It can be tempting to avoid a friend or family member when someone close to them has died. This can be because you're worried about saying the wrong thing and making things worse, or unsure what to say at all. But the social support of friends or relatives is crucial to helping someone cope with a bereavement.

The following information might help you support a friend or relative who is grieving. If you're supporting a child, read our information about supporting grieving children.

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Different ways of communicating

If at first you find it hard to talk to your friend or relative face-to-face, you could write them a letter, text message or email to let them know you're thinking about them.

  • If at first you find it hard to talk to your friend or relative face-to-face, you could write them a letter, text message or email to let them know you’re thinking about them. 
  • Try to avoid clichés about time being a healer or saying you know how they feel. Everyone grieves differently and should be allowed to express this. This communication should be about their experiences and not your own. There may be opportunities later for you to share what you've found helpful if you have been through a similar experience.
  • If you make promises, stick to them. The death might already have left your friend or relative feeling abandoned.
  • If you knew the person who died, include an anecdote or story about them. This will encourage your friend or relative to open up and may tell them something about the person who has died which they didn't know. This is especially helpful if the funeral has not yet taken place.
  • Try to get in touch even if you didn't know the person. You may be able to express something about how important they were to your relative or friend.

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Listen rather than talk

Talking about the person who died can really help someone start to cope with their grief. If your relative or friend starts to talk about the person, don't try to change the subject, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Listen to what they have to say. Sometimes just having you in the same room and sitting together quietly can be reassuring.

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Let them express their emotions

Try to create an environment where your friend or relative feels safe and can express what they're feeling. These emotions can range from sadness, to more unexpected emotions like anger. Also, try not to offer advice or cheer them up – it's important that they feel in control of what they choose to share with you.

Remember to keep anything that is shared with you confidential unless you have permission to share it more widely. At times your friend or relative may want to talk about something unrelated to the person who has died. Don't avoid referring to the person who has died if it's relevant to the conversation, but don't steer the conversation in that direction either. It's important that a bereaved person can 'take a break' from grieving if they need to without feeling that you'll be critical of them.

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Be specific

Practical offers of help are often more useful than general ones. For example, you could offer to cook dinner, answer the phone or do their shopping. Be honest about the fact you want to help but are unsure how. Ask them what they need. Cleaning the bathroom and making sure there's enough toilet paper can be very helpful if there is a gathering after the funeral at your relative or friend's home. Someone who doesn't drive will appreciate being given lifts for important appointments.

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Be patient

In the first few weeks and days, the person will probably have lots of practical things to distract them from the reality of the death. This is also when most family and friends make themselves available for support. However, there is no time limit on grieving and your friend or relative might need to cry or talk about their loss for many months or years afterwards. You might also want to make a note of any dates or anniversaries that are likely to be particularly difficult, and get in touch.

It can be very difficult for a grieving person to ask for help when they're already feeling vulnerable. Let them know you're there for them and be sensitive to any changes in their mood. The reality is that bereaved people experience lots of difficult emotions which can sometimes be hard to be around. Try not to take any anger personally, and give them space.

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Suggest an activity

Weekends can be particularly difficult for bereaved people. Perhaps after some time has passed and you feel they're up to it, you could offer to watch a film together or go for a walk. You could also do things which remind them of the person who died. This could be visiting a special place or looking through old pictures together. Remember, you don't have to talk while you're doing this. Just having you there will be reassuring.

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External websites

Bereavement Advice Centre   – how can I help a bereaved person?

Child Bereavement UK   – what family and friends can do (PDF)

Cruse Bereavement Care   – has someone died? Restoring hope (PDF)

Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland  

Contact NI   – Northern Ireland's independent counselling service

Dying Matters  

Good life, good death, good grief   (Scotland)

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