How to Help People in Grief

Older woman consoling her daughter.

When someone very close to you has experienced a tragedy, it can be hard to know what to do. You can’t erase what happened, or make it hurt any less, and your attempts to offer comfort may seem insignificant. But the opposite is true. The best thing you can do to help people in grief is to provide for the basic, fundamental needs they can’t fulfill on their own, because the weight of their loss is overwhelming.

Here are five ways to help grieving people:

Bring (the right) food.

There’s a reason that numerous mourners show up with casserole dishes after a funeral. Beside air and water, food is the most basic human need, yet in times of suffering eating is not a priority. Mourning very often involves losing one’s appetite, and it can seem a monumental effort to simply make it to the microwave.

You can’t make sad people hungry again, but you can at least take them a step in the right direction. Bring food.

Don’t just make any old dish, however. Think carefully about what the person in question needs. Is he or she part of a family? Make enough for everyone. Are they vegetarians? Be sure you take their food preferences into account. Do they have a particular favorite food? When people are having a hard time eating, comfort food goes a long way. Also, stick to basics that are easy to eat, like sandwiches, casseroles, and soups. No one wants to try to navigate fondue after a funeral.

If you’re worried about disturbing a person unnecessarily, route the food through a family member you know is in close contact — or simply ring the doorbell and leave it on the front porch in a plastic bag (as long as you know someone’s home.) Believe it or not, these gestures of care and concern can be healing even in the deepest grief.

Watch the kids.

Funerals are exhausting, not just emotionally, but physically. There seem to be hundreds of details to take care of both before and after the event. Caskets to choose, officiates to call, eulogies to write, wills to settle: the list goes on and on. People with young children may find these chores especially taxing, and those with older kids may have a hard time getting them to school or extracurricular activities.

So pitch in. If you have children in the same class, offer to help carpool. If you’re a neighbor, do some babysitting. Don’t just offer vague services; call the family and say, “I’d be glad to take Timmy tomorrow at 2 o’clock if it will help you get some things taken care of.” Be specific, so that the family doesn’t have to think too hard about what they need.

Do the laundry.

Grief makes even the most basic daily tasks difficult. If you know the person well enough to enter their home while they’re grieving, offer to take over some of the daily chores. Again, don’t just call and say, “I’m here if you need me.” Call and offer a specific service like the laundry or the dishes. If the person is a neighbor, you could pick up their mail or their newspaper, or offer to mow the lawn. Every little bit goes a long way.

Understand their limits.

There are many phases to grief, and everyone moves through them at different rates. It may take a long time for people to get back to “normal” … or whatever their new normal looks like. Understand that grieving people may be more scattered than usual, or they might not be up to fulfilling all their commitments. Don’t ask a person who has recently lost someone to host the next book group discussion or chair the PTA auction; think carefully about which meetings at work he or she really needs to attend. Re-setting your expectations will save both of you frustration.

It can also be helpful to imagine grief as an illness, rather than an emotion. This comparison is apt; many people don’t understand that grief has profound physiological effects and can affect long-term health. You wouldn’t ask someone with the flu to be up to their usual tasks — don’t expect it of someone in grief.

Remember, too, that the effects of grief can last well past the event itself. It may be that a person who has experienced such trauma may never get back to “normal.” As someone who cares for the grieving party, the best thing you can do to help is to understand and account for that fact.

Listen without judgment.

During grief, especially in the initial stages, people may need to talk about their loss — or they may need to stop thinking about it for a while, and talk about the Mets game instead. Whatever they need to discuss, be there. Your company, friendship, and open ears can do more to ease their moment-by-moment burdens than any other gift you could give.

Nothing can bring a loved one back or take a traumatizing experience away. But by caring for the basic needs of people in these situations, you can help them heal in powerful ways.