Lisa Lund
National bereavement service logo

For those who want to offer emotional support to someone who is grieving – whether they’re a partner, relative, close friend or colleague – it can be difficult to know what to do or say.

You may ask yourself, what if I say the wrong thing? Could what I say add to their distress? It’s completely normal to feel unsure as to how to support a loved one through a very tough time, and as a result we can feel confused, distanced from the bereaved and our efforts can even feel ineffective.

The good news is there are lots of things you can do to let your loved one know that you’re by their side, from listening to them about their feelings to helping them with everyday tasks.

Here, we’ll have a look at the different ways that grief could affect someone and some common beliefs and misconceptions that people might have about grieving. We’ll also talk you through the ways you can help to support someone in your life who has experienced loss.

How does grief affect us?

Grief is a natural response to the loss of a loved one. It’s very common for people to feel shocked or “numb” when they first find out about their loss. Many people experience disbelief or a sense that what’s happened isn’t real.

While each person reacts differently to loss, many people have described feeling strong denial or confusion, while others say they have felt anger, yearning, guilt or sadness.

Most people have heard of the “five stages” of grief, and many of us can even name them. The stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – were first developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist whose work did much to soften the stigma around terminal illness and grief.

The five stages, which were originally developed to describe the emotional journey that patients follow, rather than their loved ones, have become shorthand for what is actually a very complex process.

The five stages of grief don’t typically happen one after the other. In fact, everyone grieves in their own diverse ways and can experience a wide array of emotions. As well as the original five stages, people who are grieving can experience many more emotions and could find themselves “skipping” stages, repeating them or experiencing multiple stages at once.  For example, they might experience an immediate period of melancholy or depression only to later have feelings of anger or denial. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and it’s essential that the bereaved receive support and validation no matter what way they grieve or the timeline the process follows.

Supporting the bereaved person

Whether you’re a friend, family member or colleague, you can play an important role in helping the bereaved receive the understanding and support they need. Here are a few key ways to do so…

Ask… then listen

Begin with the simplest of questions, ‘How are you?’. If you know the person well you may feel comfortable asking them directly whether or not they want to talk about their feelings.

The bereaved person might find it soothing to discuss their feelings, or share memories of the deceased. And while you may encourage them to speak with you about it, ultimately you should take your lead from them in each conversation. After all, they may want to speak in detail about their feelings, but just as equally they may not.

Offer help

Let the bereaved person know you are ready to support them. This could include offering to attend an event held in honour of the deceased, or offering your company on holidays such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Christmas. It may help to be aware of dates and anniversaries which could cause strong feelings to surface so that you can offer support in those times.

Ask if there’s anything they need, and if they seem unsure, you could suggest specific things, such as cooking them a meal or doing their shopping.

Be observant

Many people report physical symptoms which come as a result of acute grief, such as stomach pain, loss of appetite, intestinal upsets, sleep disturbances and loss of energy.

Mourning can place significant stress on the body’s natural defence systems, and loneliness and feelings of isolation could worsen existing health issues. As a friend or family member, you may wish to be observant of the physical and emotional health of the bereaved, and gently suggest seeking the help of a doctor if existing health problems worsen or new symptoms emerge.

Be patient

Being nudged or pushed to confront many difficult emotions at once can be unnecessarily painful, and put a strain on your relationship with the bereaved. Therefore take a slow and patient approach to supporting your loved one, and remember that processing and healing after loss take a great deal of time. Mourning can progress over months and years. Avoid setting a specific timeline for someone to “move on”, or comparing them with others’ experiences or expectations around grief.

Resources that can help

There are many organisations that offer emotional support, and a phone call or online chat following a bereavement.

Many charities and organisations have come under strain during the pandemic, however, either as a result of decreases in funding, an increase in enquiries, or adjustments to new ways of working and/or staffing. NBS has recently launched an all-new grief support and counselling helpline, to help charities and other organisations that have been overwhelmed or lack the resources to offer a full-time support and counselling helpline.

The dedicated free-phone number, giving people direct access to bereavement support, is available from 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 10am to 2pm on Saturday.

For those who prefer not to speak to someone about the difficulties they’re experiencing over the phone, NBS has also introduced a live chat feature on its website. The live chat function automatically appears as a pop-up when a visitor accesses the site and they can choose to get in touch through it, or continue browsing. Providing real-time responses to questions or concerns from the same trained advisors who answer NBS’ phonelines, the live chat facility is an alternative contact method that ensures those in need of help following a bereavement can reach out in a way that’s easiest for them.

No matter how people choose to get in touch, NBS can provide immediate help with support and counselling services developed in partnership with the expert team at St Giles Hospice. On a case by case basis, NBS can provide assessment and signposting to further assistance, which will either be provided by trained specialist bereavement support volunteers, or, where counselling is required, by a BACP-registered practitioner.

Visit the National Bereavement Service’s website

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