How to Help a Grieving Friend


A letter to an inquiring stranger asking for advice on how to help a friend whose husband just died:

"I'm sorry to hear of your friend's loss, and commend you for caring so much for her that you are researching and reaching out for help - you are a good friend.

Alas, there is never an easy answer to an inquiry like yours, especially since I don't know either of you. People can vary so much in their grief - what they will or won't talk about, who they'll lean on, how they are actually experiencing their loss, and how they handle the loss day-to-day.

A first rule of thumb when supporting our grieving friends is to follow their lead - do they want to talk? Do they want to be distracted? Do they just want company? Do they want help with their chores? While talking about our feelings can be very helpful, you can also offer support in more ways than talking about the hard stuff.

A second rule of thumb that may be useful to you is to practice active listening. Supporting a grieving loved one can be challenging, and it's very hard to see them in so much pain. Our instinct to help sometimes gets in the way, and instead of truly listening to what they want, we try to fill the silence and offer them what we think will help. The catch here is that we know ourselves best, so our first instinct is to tell them what we think would help us if we were in their shoes. Alas, that sometimes backfires since what might comfort you may not comfort your friend. So practice sitting with the silence and letting her fill it - then you'll have a better sense of what she wants.

This also brings up the important point that you should take good care of yourself while you take care of her. This is a trauma for you as well, and being there for her may be draining for you. If you want to be there for her in the long-haul, pace yourself and make sure you have support as well. The last thing you want to do is burn out.

Finally, a last rule of thumb is that grief changes over time. This means that what your friend will be experiencing, and what she will need, will change over the course of the next few days, weeks, and months. So if your friend isn't comfortable talking about her thoughts and feelings now, she may be later. One of the things grieving people tell me all the time is that they get a lot of attention and support in the first couple of months, and then people disappear. So hang in there - if she's not ready to talk now, be patient and check in with her periodically.

With all that said, I think you were looking for some prompts to use too? If she does want to talk, it may be as simple as asking her "How are you holding up today?" or "How are the kids today?" Or you could open it up with a statement such as "I was just thinking of John today when [fill in anecdote]." Or "I miss John. I can't imagine how you feel." Or share a good memory of him, and see if she goes with that. As long as you keep in mind the general rules of thumb, you don't start speaking in clichés, and your friend feels your support by her side, then you've done well.

I hope this was helpful. Don't hesitate to be in touch if I can be of further assistance, or if your questions weren't fully covered. I wish you and your friend all the best on this difficult journey."

Dr. Karine Toussaint has spent a lifetime balancing the stress and joy of living in different worlds: from her bicultural upbringing in France and the US, to her years living in the Land of Graduate School, and her experience as a civilian working with first responders. Now in her private practice, Dr. Toussaint works with adults from a variety of walks of life including undergraduate and graduate students, international students, teachers, and first responders. Her work focuses on challenges such as bereavement, depression, anxiety, relationship issues, wellness, trauma, and navigating life in the US. Learn more about her workshops, counseling services, and more at

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