Death and grief spare no one and are normal life events. All cultures have developed expectations and norms about coping with death. It is important to understand someone else's loss from the perspective of the cultural and family traditions unique to that individual.

When people are grieving, thoughts and emotions are often heightened. People who care about the bereaved are often unsure how to be helpful; they do not know what to say or do. The primary and most important thing to do is to show that you care by being present and by listening and supporting family and friends who are grieving. Offering advice or suggestions is not needed; try to become comfortable with quietly supporting a person with your presence.

I'll be right here if you need me

There is no right way to grieve and mourn. Be very careful not to impose your ideas, beliefs and expectations on someone else, no matter how much you think it might help. The following are some suggestions of ways you can support a grieving friend or family member.

  • Acknowledge all feelings. Their grief reactions are natural and necessary. Do not pass judgment on how well they are or are not coping.
  • Understand and accept cultural and religious perspectives about illness and death that may be different from your own. For example, if a family has decided to not allow their children to attend the funeral because of their beliefs that children should not be exposed to death, support their decision even if this may not be what you would do.
  • Acknowledge that life won’t “feel the same” and the person may not be able to “get back to normal.” Help the person to renew interest in past activities and hobbies, when they are ready, or to discover new areas of interest. Offer suggestions such as, “Let’s go to the museum on Saturday to see the new exhibit", but be accepting if your offer is declined.
  • Be willing to stay engaged for a long time. Your friend or family member will need your support and presence in the weeks and months to come after most others will have withdrawn.
  • Be specific in your willingness to help. Offer assistance with chores such as childcare or meals. For example, suggest, “I’ll bring dinner on Thursday; how many people will be there?"
  • Check on your friend or relative as time passes and months go by. Periodic check-ins can be helpful throughout the first two years after the death. Stay in touch by writing a note, calling, stopping by to visit, or perhaps bringing flowers.
  • Be sensitive to holidays and special days. For someone grieving a death, certain days may be more difficult and can magnify the sense of loss. Anniversaries and birthdays can be especially hard. Some people find it helpful to be with family and friends, others may wish to avoid traditions and try something different. Extend an invitation to someone who might otherwise spend time alone during a holiday or special day, and recognise they may or may not accept your offer.
  • Identify friends who might be willing to help with specific tasks on a regular basis. Performing tasks such as picking up the kids from school or refilling prescriptions can be a big help.

Coping with bereavement at Christmas

Christmas is a particularly difficult time for those who are bereaved. Maybe you’ve lost a child, partner, or another loved one, and you wish you could cancel Christmas this year. Here are some suggestions to support you through Christmas. They’ve been written by Care for the Family’s Bereaved Parents’ Network telephone befrienders to support those who have lost a child:

  • The anticipation of the day will probably be much worse than the day itself.
  • Take a flask of soup and some sandwiches and go walking on Christmas Day.
  • Be prepared to weep as you get out the decorations. Set aside a time to do this as a family or on your own.
  • Make a Christmas wreath in holly and berries especially for your child, perhaps in the shape of their initial – you could place it on their grave.
  • Accept any offers of help and don’t feel like a failure for doing so.
  • For the first empty Christmas, don’t try to recreate the old rituals. Do something completely different. If possible, get away somewhere and begin to create some new special memories. Even if it’s a disaster, it will be a different sort of disaster!
  • Try to find very good friends to spend time with, where you can really be safe and you can all cry, laugh or whatever.
  • Try to spend at least a short time, just as a family, to allow each person to remember or share something about how they feel. Be careful not to spend too much time on this as it may be too heavy.
  • Light a special candle for your child on Christmas Day and other special days.
  • Avoid the shops as much as possible – it can make Christmas feel more empty and shallow than it already feels.
  • We wrote to everyone a while before Christmas that first year when our son died, to tell them about his death, how we were doing and explaining that we wouldn’t be sending Christmas cards as it was too hard to miss out his name. We asked that they still send us cards as we wanted to hear from them.
  • Make your own Christmas cards that say what you want to say and so don’t seem trite and tinselly. You can add a kiss from each member of the family, even though you wish you could write each person’s name.
  • You may prefer not to send any post at all.
  • Don’t be pressurised into feeling you have to do anything – remember you only have to do as much as you want to do. You may well be stronger to think about other people next year.

More information on the above and more can be found at Care For The Family