Sensitivity and Sympathy: How to Help the Recently Bereaved

When someone you love suffers bereavement, it can be difficult to know exactly how to respond; everyone deals with grief in different ways. But it’s important to let them know that you’re there for them, and that you’re thinking of them during this difficult time. How you choose to do so is up to you – you know them best – but here are a few ideas.

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Should I Send a Gift?

It can be difficult to know whether sending a gift is appropriate. As a rule, if you are well-acquainted with the bereaved, you are fine to send a gift even if you didn’t know the deceased person well – or at all. It’s important to let the living know you’re thinking of them, and to acknowledge that they have suffered a loss.

Knowing What to Send

Sympathy cards are generally always an appropriate, thoughtful thing to send when someone has died. Make sure to pick a card that is suitable for the occasion, and write a thoughtful message that accurately reflects the sentiment you’re trying to express. You’re not writing a birthday card; sincere, kind words are the way to go.

Flowers are another beautiful way to let someone know you care; you can either send flowers for the funeral, or send an arrangement to the bereaved family as a sympathy gift. Choose classic flowers in muted colors that will be appropriate for the occasion, unless told otherwise (some families choose to celebrate the life of their loved one with bright colors). Make sure to write the card.

Depending on the scenario, it might be appropriate to send a group gift – if the bereaved is a coworker or classmate, for example. However, if you do choose a group gift but are close to the individual make sure to send an individual gift too.

Rather than sending a gift, you can show you care by offering to make a contribution to funeral expenses – funerals can be pricey, and it can be hard to cover the cost, especially if the death was unexpected. Don’t overstep your boundaries, but offer to help as much as you can.

Some people request donations in lieu of sympathy gifts; perhaps to a charity that was close to the deceased person’s heart, or an organization that supports medical research. If the family requests a donation, do not send a gift – respect their wishes and make the donation.

Other Ways to Help

As in the days after death it can be difficult for people to find time to look after themselves, you may also want to send a hamper of food items, or cook a dish to make sure your friend / loved one has something good to eat. Small, practical gifts can mean the world in difficult moments, but just make sure you let someone know that you’ll be stopping by. Turning up unannounced in times of grief is not always welcome.

You can also offer to help your loved one around their home; offer to look after the kids while they make funeral arrangements, or just take a break. You could also offer to just clean up around the house, do laundry or help with sorting the deceased’s belongings. As we mentioned above, don’t just show up – you want to be helpful, but it’s important to respect personal space during tough times.

It’s tempting to think that taking someone’s mind off what they’re going through is the best way to proceed when someone is grieving, but it’s important to remember that people need to be allowed to grieve. This isn’t something that can be fixed, or undone; even if there’s nothing you can say that will make the bereaved feel better, simple words of comfort can mean everything.

Listening is also really important. Don’t try to distract the bereaved person because talking about their loss might be upsetting; be a shoulder to cry on and an ear willing to listen. Even if it gets ugly, allow your loved one to express their grief any way they need to; whether it’s shouting, crying, reminiscing, laughing, or simply sitting in companionable silence. Relaxing activities that you can do together while talking, such as walking or reading, also work well.

Let the Bereaved Lead

Supporting someone you love through grief is not about you; it’s about them, and so you need to let them lead at every step of the way. Contact them as soon as possible after their bereavement, but don’t push them to talk if they’re not ready. Attend the funeral or memorial service, but be sensitive to people who are grieving – it’s likely you won’t know everyone in the room. Don’t decide what support is best for your friend; offer your support, but ask them how you can best help. Be ready to listen at any time, and don’t judge. Everyone grieves differently and feeling judged or looked down on is a sure-fire way to stop your loved one from coming to you to talk.

How Not to Handle Grief

Now we’ve covered what you should do when someone is bereaved, let’s briefly cover what not to do.

While sharing stories of your own personal experience can make someone who is grieving feel like they’re not alone, it’s important to make sure that you are always listening, and not just waiting for your friend to finish so you can share your own story. All grief is different, and should be respected as such – never compare their grief with yours, or anyone else’s. They might feel that they’re ‘doing it wrong’ and feel even worse.

Similarly, do not offer advice if you have not been asked for your opinion, or try to explain to someone what they ‘should’ do or how they ‘should’ feel. These situations have no rules; we all just have to get through them as best we can.

Never try and encourage someone to ‘take their mind off it’, or ‘look on the bright side’. Diminishing how someone feels is never, ever going to help.

Be careful of religious belief; if you are religious, but your loved one is not, discussing death in the context of your religion can be unwelcome. Take care not to overstep your boundaries.