How to help someone who is grieving
It can be hard to know how to help someone who is grieving. You may become lost for words or feel hesitant about offering practical assistance. Simply making the offer can let the person know they are not alone. If you need to support grieving children, it can help to understand that they may react to death in a different way to adults.
How can I ease their pain?
If you know someone who is grieving, it is important to accept that you cannot and do not need to fix their grief. Grieving is the way we adjust to loss and it is a natural process. Be patient and give them time to grieve. Don’t expect a bereaved person to feel or behave in a certain way by a certain time. Allow them to do things in their own time.
It is understandable that the person may be easily upset, so try to be sensitive to this. Their feelings may change often and seem unpredictable. One day the person may feel hopeful, the next day sad and full of despair. These ups and downs are a natural part of grief.
While practical assistance can ease someone’s burden, especially in the days and weeks after the death, follow the person’s lead about how much help they want. Sometimes getting back into everyday routines, such as shopping and cooking, is how a person manages their grief.
Respond in the way you think is right for the relationship you have with the person. Sometimes this might be with a caring smile or offering a hug, other times it might be taking the time to listen.
Will I say the wrong thing?
You may want to help, but fear saying or doing the wrong thing. Be honest right from the start. You may need to say, “I want to help, but I’m not sure what to do” or “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I do care and I am here if you need a shoulder to cry on”. Your honesty will be appreciated.
It is not helpful to say, “I know how you feel”. Each person grieves in their own way. You cannot know exactly how the bereaved person feels, even if you have been through a similar experience or if you are also grieving. Your experiences may give you a better understanding of the person’s situation, but remember that they may not react in the same way as you would or did.
Give reassurance where you can, but don’t try to find something positive in the death. Avoid saying things like “It was for the best” or “Their suffering is now over”. To empathise without suggesting you know exactly how they feel, you could say, “You’re in my thoughts, how are you feeling today?” Or you could share a story about the person who died.
When to suggest professional help
It is normal for a person’s grief and sadness to go on for some months or longer. Sometimes, however, a person experiencing grief can become overwhelmed and may develop depression or suicidal thoughts. You could suggest that they seek professional help if they are having trouble completing the tasks of daily living.
If you are concerned that the person may become suicidal, ask them if they think they are doing okay and encourage them to seek professional support. You may need to ask directly, “Have you felt suicidal?” This can indicate that you can offer help and take some of the power out of the feelings the person is having. Keep in touch if you are concerned about their wellbeing or safety.
Ways to help someone after a loss
Listen – Be a good listener and don’t force someone to talk. Just being by their side may be enough. They will talk when they are ready. Follow their lead in how they want to express their feelings.
Share memories – Talk about the person who died. Don’t be afraid that it will be upsetting. The person you are supporting won’t have forgotten about their loss. Friends and family members may use different names for the person who died – ask what name they would like you to use.
Remember – Let the person know you are thinking of them on significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries.
Step in – If needed, help with practical chores such as shopping, laundry, gardening, picking the kids up from school, caring for elderly parents, paying bills, cooking and driving.
Stick around – Don’t withdraw your support once you feel the person is coping better. Grief from a major loss can take a long time. Your support may be more helpful months or even years down the track, rather than right after the death.
Helping children in your family
Children and teenagers have a different way of expressing their grief. Do not underestimate the impact of a bereavement, even if a child is very young or does not seem sad. They may express their grief through play, in outbursts of anger, or by becoming clingy or very withdrawn. Some children will complain more of stomach upsets and headaches or have trouble sleeping.
Children often worry that something they said or did caused the death, so let them know that the death is no-one’s fault and that there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. After the death of a parent, children need to be reassured that they will be looked after – explain to them who will be involved in their care. Young children in particular will often have lots of questions about “who will do what now” and “how will things work” that will emerge as time goes on.
Like adults, children and young people need:
- space to grieve – you do not have to fix their sorrow
- acknowledgement of their loss, ongoing support, and the opportunity to understand and express their feelings (as much as they want to)
- to be told the truth and to be included
- for the adults around them to show them that it’s okay to cry and express their sadness, and that it’s also fine to be angry as long as they don’t hurt themselves or others
- help to put words to their feelings of loss, but don’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk when you do, and don’t push if they prefer not to talk
- to keep up school, activities and regular routines
- encouragement to cherish their memories and talk about the person
- to know that they were and are loved.
The ways children understand death and experience grief change with their age and development. They might seem to be deeply distressed one moment and playing happily the next. This does not mean that their grief is superficial – they often work through their feelings in bits and pieces, facing them in bearable doses. Allow children to talk about their thoughts and feelings as much as they want to. Teenagers may find it hard to talk to you or show how they feel. Provide a safe environment without judgement and give them tools that suit their way of grieving, such as drawing or kicking a ball to help manage emotions.
It’s especially hard to be there for your children when you are grieving. Sometimes people feel they just don’t have any emotional energy left for their children. It is not uncommon for children and teenagers to start to express their grief more strongly just as the adults supporting them feel like they are starting to cope with their own grief. At this time, it is important to allow others to help you provide support. Reach out to extended family, friends, the school community and grief counsellors to make sure your children are well supported.
Find out more about children and grief
Our ‘Talking to Kids About Cancer’ booklet explains how children of different ages understand cancer, illness and death, and answers some of the
common questions kids ask. Our ‘Cancer in the School Community’ booklet includes information for school staff when a member of the school community has
died from cancer. Download the booklets or call 13 11 20 for copies.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed March 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Kate Jurgens, Bereavement Coordinator, Southern Adelaide Palliative Services, SA; Gabrielle Asprey, Cancer Support Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; A/Prof Lauren Breen, Psychologist, Curtin University, WA; Rev David Dawes, Manager, Spiritual Care Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Rob Ferguson, Consumer; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Joanna Mangan, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Kate Reed, Nurse Practitioner National Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Maxine Rosenfield, Counsellor and Educator, NSW.