How to Support a Grieving Friend, Family Member or Coworker

UPDATED: June 28, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 28, 2024
Woman hugging a sad man

Has this ever happened to you?

Your uncle calls to tell you that your aunt has finally succumbed to cancer.

You’re scrolling through social media and find out your friend’s father died suddenly.

Your coworker takes you aside and says another coworker’s mother has died.

If you’re like most people, you’ve likely heard about someone’s death. In addition to feeling sadness, you may be unsure how to respond to the news or provide support to the person who is grieving. Here are some tips from grief experts on how to support a grieving friend, family member or coworker.

What to do when you first hear about a loss

Even if you’re feeling uncomfortable or sad, the most important thing to remember is that you should reach out to a bereaved person.

“The worst thing [to do is to] say nothing at all,” says David Kessler, a leading authority on grief, founder of and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. One of the reasons people don’t reach out, he says, is because “[they] don’t know what to say.”

What to say to someone who is grieving

“[The words you say should be] in line with helping the [bereaved] person to feel supported [and] cared about,” says Bonnie Gorscak, Ph.D., senior trainer at the Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia University and a therapist in private practice.

“‘I’m so sorry to hear your sad news’ and ‘You have my deepest sympathy’… are acceptable phrases to use when you’re not sure what to say or when you don’t have a close relationship with the grieving person,” Gorscak says. 

She adds that “I’m really heartbroken for you,” “I’m thinking of you and your family at this painful time” and “I care about you, and I’m sad to hear this terrible news,” as well as similar phrases that come straight from your heart, are supportive to close family and friends who are grieving.

“I wish I had the right words. Just know I’m here” acknowledges that you may not know what to say but are there to support the bereaved, Kessler says.

What not to say to someone who is grieving

You should avoid “any sentence that begins with ‘at least,’ [such as] ‘At least they died quickly,’ ‘At least they’re not suffering anymore’ [and] ‘At least they’re in a better place,’” Kessler says. “[This] minimizes the griever’s experience, and it does what I call ‘bright siding’—trying to force people to look on the bright side.”

Another phrase to avoid is “‘I know how you feel,’” Kessler adds. “Do you really know how they feel?” It’s unlikely. He also says that “‘Be strong’” translates to “Be strong; don’t have feelings.’” 

The importance of listening to someone who is grieving

“One of the things we don’t often understand is grief needs to be witnessed,” Kessler says. Listening is just as important as saying comforting words.

Hearing about someone’s grief can be painful and may make you uneasy, especially if they’re also crying. Take heart in knowing that expressing grief is important and that you were able to offer a safe place for them to cry.

Kessler also offers advice to “fixers”: If you’re the kind of person who wants to give someone “three solutions to every problem,” please don’t do that with those who are grieving. Instead, just “be with the person… [and say], ‘Wow, thank you for sharing, and it really means a lot that you’re talking to me about this.’”

How to help someone who is grieving

“One of the things that I just think is so unfortunate is that the people who are most bereaved are usually the ones that have to handle all the stuff [that comes with a loss],” Gorscak says. 

The amount of work to be done after a death, including burial arrangements and closing bank accounts, can be overwhelming, so help is often welcome. But other, more mundane types of assistance are also important because daily activities don’t stop when a loved one dies. Consider volunteering to walk the bereaved’s dog, pick up their groceries or mow their lawn. The individual’s response will help you understand if your offers are welcome—or not.

“Walking the dog [may be] one of the only feelings of respite [the griever] gets,” Gorscak says. Or the bereaved may want to handle all of the estate work on their own. The key is to respect boundaries and not take any negative responses to your offers of help personally, says Gorscak.

For those who balk at obvious help, consider providing “invisible support,” Gorscak adds. An example of this is, “‘I cooked an extra pot of chili tonight…. Is it okay if I dropped [some] off for you?’”

Another idea that Gorscak suggests is to provide choices. For example, “‘I’m thinking that you’re gonna have a lot to handle with the thank you notes and the funeral. Would you want me to just sit with you while you write your thank you notes? Would you like me to write [them] for you? Or would you like… [me to] address the envelopes?’”

How to provide ongoing support for the bereaved 

“Everyone wants to check in for the first week, and then they think they’re done,” Kessler says. “My rule of three is [that] you check in at three days, three weeks [and] three months.”

For a close friend or family member, daily support is often welcome.

When Patti Frederick of Coral Springs, Florida, lost her father two years ago, her best friend came up with an idea. “She would check in with me every day,” Frederick says. “[It was] up to me to decide if I was able to take the call or text. [I was] never under any obligation to respond.”

Frederick found it comforting to receive those messages, which ranged from smiley face emojis and “Thinking of you. How are you today?” to “We haven’t spoken in a few days. Can we talk?”

Finally, Kessler says that “if you really want to go above and beyond,” consider marking your calendar and checking in on days that may be difficult. Those days may be at the one-month mark after the person has passed, at the six-month mark, at the one-year mark, on the deceased’s birthday and on major holidays or special occasions where the deceased will be especially missed.

Grief in the workplace

While we may not be as close to our coworkers, “addressing [a colleague’s grief] is a good idea, [but] probably not during work [hours],” Gorscak says. “But [you can send] a small note… to say ‘I’m sorry to hear [about this]’ or ‘You have my deepest sympathy.’”

A nice gesture from your workplace as a whole can be to send flowers to the funeral home or a food basket to your grieving colleague.

Supporting people who’ve lost a pet

Don’t forget to reach out to people who have lost pets.  

“The loss of a pet can be very painful,” Gorscak says. “People form close attachments to their pets, and this grief often gets minimized or unacknowledged.” 

“Rituals, sensitive care and support, memorializing and honoring can be comforting in these situations as well,” she adds.

Sadly, we can’t prevent grief and loss. We can, however, learn how best to support the grieving, and, even if it’s just a little, ease the pain of loss.

Photo credit: – Yuri A/