Skip to content

Speak to a qualified cancer nurse

Call us on 13 11 20

Avg. connection time: 25 secs

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 may help to know they often react to death in a different way to adults.

What if I say the wrong thing?

It’s common to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing to someone who is grieving. It’s okay to be honest and 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 care. Please let me know when I get it wrong.” Most grieving people say that it’s worse when others say nothing at all.

It may not be as helpful to say, “I know how you feel.” Each person grieves in their own way. 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. If you feel you’ve said the wrong thing, acknowledge that you made a mistake.

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.

How can I ease their pain?

If you know someone who is grieving, it is important to recognise 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 way the person feels may change often and seem unpredictable. One day the person may feel hopeful, the next day sad and full of despair. This is a common 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, cooking and gardening, is how a person manages their grief. If someone does require practical support, offer to coordinate assistance from others.

Provide help 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.

When to suggest professional help

It is normal for a person’s grief and sadness to go on for some time. Sometimes, however, a person experiencing grief can develop anxiety, depression or have thoughts of suicide. If they are consistently having difficulty doing everyday tasks (e.g. going to work, caring for children, eating and showering) or show any of the following behaviours:

  • beginning to depend on alcohol or other drugs
  • they stop eating regularly
  • they are sleeping too much or having a lot of trouble sleeping
  • you are worried they might hurt someone because their feelings of anger or aggression do not settle
  • they are thinking about self-harm or ending their own life.

You could encourage them to talk with their GP, get a referral to a mental health professional or join a bereavement support group. Offering to drive them to doctors’ appointments or therapy can be a practical way to help.

If you are worried that the person may be thinking about suicide, it’s okay to ask them direct questions such as “Have you thought about suicide?” or “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” These questions show that you can offer help, and they may take some of the power out of the feelings the person is having. If you are concerned about their wellbeing or safety, encourage them to call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on
1300 659 467.

Ways to help someone with grief

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.

Remember – Let the person know you are thinking of them on important occasions (e.g.  birthdays, anniversaries, holidays). You could send a card, write a letter or gift them a plant or flowers. It’s also important to check in now and then on days that are not special occasions.

Share memories – Ask if it is okay to 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.

Provide practical support – If needed, help with everyday tasks 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 deal with grief

The way children and teenagers grieve is different from adults. How they understand death and experience grief will depend on their age and development. Even if they’re very young or don’t seem sad, they may experience grief. Reactions may include:

  • grieving in bits and pieces (e.g. deeply distressed one moment and playing or doing their usual activities the next)
  • changes in behaviour (e.g. becoming clingy, very withdrawn)
  • physical symptoms (e.g. stomach upsets, headaches, trouble sleeping).

How to support a child

You can’t protect a child from the pain of a loss, but you can provide support in a range of ways:

  • give them space to grieve – you do not have to fix their sorrow
  • acknowledge their loss, offer ongoing support, and the opportunity to understand and express their feelings (as much as they want to)
  • answer any questions honestly and directly
  • avoid using euphemisms such as “went to sleep”
  • show your emotions so they know feeling sad or angry is okay
  • encourage them to express their feelings in a way that feels comfortable to them, e.g. talking  to you or another adult, making art, playing sport or spending time in nature
  • provide a safe environment where they can share how they are feeling without feeling judged or interrupted
  • reassure them that nothing they said or did caused the death, and that there is nothing  anyone could have done to prevent it
  • explain who will be involved in their care
  • encourage them to share memories of the person and to keep some of the person’s special things or display photos in their room
  • stick to regular routines such as school, other activities and bedtimes
  • communicate with the school so it can offer support
  • let them know it’s okay not to talk about the person when they don’t want to
  • be prepared to talk when you least expect it (e.g. driving in the car, going for a walk)
  • let them know that they were and are loved.

You may find being there for your children when you are also grieving challenging. Sometimes people who are grieving 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.

Try not to pressure yourself – there is no “perfect” way to comfort children. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask others to help you keep your children’s lives as normal as possible. Reach out to extended family, friends, spiritual care practitioners, the school community and grief counsellors to make sure your children are well supported.

Where to 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 resource includes information for school staff when a member of the school community has died from cancer.

Canteen and Redkite offer support tailored for young people.

Featured resource

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed October 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Lisa Beatty, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Consulting Clinical Psychologist, Flinders University Institute of Mental Health and Wellbeing, SA; Sandra Anderson, Consumer; Dr Alexandra Clinch, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Deputy Director, Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC; Christopher Hall, Chief Executive Officer, Grief Australia; Nathan MacArthur, Specialist Grief Counsellor and Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Sydney Grief Counselling Services, NSW; Linda Magann, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Palliative Care, St George Hospital, NSW; Palliative Care Australia; Richard Upton, Consumer; Lesley Woods, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.

You might also be interested in: