Grieving Friends: 5 Tips For Helping A Friend Cope With Grief

Updated December 21, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Grief is a nearly universal experience. But while most of us will experience the anguish of losing a loved one, pet, or even a job, you may not know what to say or do to help your friend cope with grief.

If you’re looking for direction, it may help to know that grief – while intense and complicated – is a gradual process, and generally improves over time. Some days will be more difficult than others, and every person’s expression of grief varies. As a friend or loved one, your presence and desire to help a grieving friend are deeply meaningful. But if you’re searching for more concrete strategies to support a friend during this time in your life, psychologists and researchers offer several suggestions.

Read on to develop your understanding of the grieving process, how to help a friend cope with loss, and ways to take care of yourself while extending your care and compassion to loved ones.

Understanding Your Friend’s Grief

Looking For Ways To Support A Grieving Friend?

What Is Grief?

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes grief as the anguish people experience after a significant loss, usually the death of a loved one. Symptoms of grief include physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning for the lost person or thing, and excessive thoughts or “rumination” about the past and future. 

The Stages Of Grief

The five-stage model of grief, also called the Kubler-Ross Model, originated in a 1969 book, On Death and Dying, by psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Since its publication, researchers continue to study grief and adapt this model, which is not science-based. However, the following stages may help someone describe their feelings and goals while grieving. Some psychologists still introduce this model to patients to help them label and work through their emotions.

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance

People may experience these stages in various orders – or, in some cases, not at all. Many researchers argue that these stages are too rigid and linear and that pushing someone through the stages could cause harm, since people process their grief in unique ways. Whether you’re supporting a grieving friend or just experienced your own loss, remember that these stages are simply a guide, and that other models of grief exist. As we cope with grief, we may refer to these stages to describe our emotions or fears, but no one should feel pressured to grieve the “right” way. 

Complicated Grief And Prolonged Grief Disorder

A loss can feel both emotionally and physically painful. These feelings are natural, and we can often work through them with the support of others. In some instances, however, feelings of loss can develop into complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, as it’s described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). 

The APA describes complicated grief as a response to death, significant loss, or trauma that deviates from standard expectations of grief. Again, grief is rarely “standard” and certainly not a one-size-fits-all process – but in general, people with complicated grief may experience the following:

  1. Chronic grief, which is intense, prolonged, or both

  2. Delayed grief

  3. Absent grief, when a person shows no, or only a few, signs of distress in response to loss 

Chronic grief is the most commonly-described variation of complicated grief, perhaps because it’s the most visible to onlookers. 

Most recently, the DSM-5 officially recognized complicated grief as prolonged grief disorder. For a diagnosis of this disorder, adults must exhibit the major symptoms at least one year after the loss of a loved one, and at least 6 months for children and adolescents. The symptoms of this disorder include: 

  • A strong sense of disbelief about the death or loss

  • Emotional numbness, meaning an absent or minimized experience of various emotions

  • Intense loneliness

  • Feeling that life is meaningless

  • Intense emotional pain – including anger, bitterness, and sorrow – related to the loss

  • Avoidance of reminders of the loss

While prolonged grief disorder is a somewhat controversial diagnosis, it may offer psychiatrists a new way to recognize and honor how people grieve for varying amounts of time and with various shades of intensity. Based on the research of Dr. Holly Prigerson, the psychiatrist who advocated for the inclusion of prolonged grief disorder in the DSM-5, symptoms of grief peak in most people during the six months after the death of a loved one. People with prolonged grief, however, continued to struggle with poor mood, functioning, and sleep after those six months. 

If you know someone who is struggling to recover from grief, small shows of support can make all the difference, and remind them that it’s possible to emerge from this difficult time. If possible, consult a mental health professional as you accompany a loved one through their grieving process, and refer to the following tips for further guidance. 

5 Tips to Support A Grieving Friend

Even if you’ve experienced a loss of your own, you may worry about finding the “right” words or acting appropriately around a friend who’s experiencing grief. While you can’t take their pain away, your presence is often more powerful than you think. But if you’re looking for more concrete ways to support your friend, here are some simple ways to show care and provide comfort.

1. Reach Out Regularly. 

The days that follow a significant loss can be the most difficult. In the immediate aftermath, don’t be afraid to reach out with a phone call, email, or quick text. Your message can be simple, such as:  

  • “Thinking of you. I’m planning to give you a call this evening, if you’re available?” 

  • “How are you feeling today?” Notice that this differs from “How are you?”, which doesn’t acknowledge that your friend just experienced a major loss.

During this time, expressions of sympathy and brief check-ins can be deeply meaningful. According to the Harvard Medical School, people experiencing grief may not reach out on their own, so consider calling or messaging on a consistent basis: you can even let them know that you’ll call in the morning every other day, for instance, so they can expect and look forward to your conversation. 

Importantly, the person may not be ready to talk about their grief yet. Respect their space yet let them know that they’re welcome to talk about their feelings, experiences, and the loss itself, if you both have the capacity to do so.

2. Find Ways to Help.

During the grieving process, emotional support is essential – but sometimes, grief calls for hands-on help. Experts advise against simply asking a grieving friend if you can “do anything,” as they may not have the words or energy to articulate their needs. Instead, offer specific acts of help, such as:

  • Cleaning their kitchen or bathrooms

  • Bringing a favorite meal

  • Doing their laundry

  • Taking out the trash and recycling

  • Taking care of funeral arrangements

  • Connecting with a laywer or legal professional, if relevant

In the midst of grief, assisting your friend with these logistical concerns allows them to focus on their emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. 

3. Listen.

Your friend’s display of grief may be very different from your own, or from the grieving process of another friend. Ultimately, when we witness deep sadness or the pain of grief in another person, we may struggle to find the words to adequately express our sympathy. 

The solution? Simply listen. If your friend initiates a conversation, focus on the words and feelings they express, rather than formulating your response. Ask follow-up questions if appropriate, but don’t shy away from silence. By giving your friend a space to speak, be heard, and simply sit quietly with another person, you’re showing them that it’s okay to grieve, and that they don’t need to go through this experience alone.

If your friend asks for advice, you may feel compelled to divulge your personal experience with loss. If you choose to tell, let your friend know that while you don’t have any answers, you’re willing to sit with them and provide a space to discuss the complicated emotions of grief.

4. Use Language Carefully, But Don’t Be Afraid To Name Names. 

Looking For Ways To Support A Grieving Friend?

If your friend is grieving the loss of a loved one, it’s okay to mention and talk about the deceased: in fact, it may reassure your friend to know that their loved one won’t be erased from memory or future conversations. When you ask about or say the name of someone who has died, you honor their life – and the people who loved them – through your language.

In addition to names, some people may dislike euphemisms for death, such as “passed away,” “no longer with us,” or “lost.” If possible and appropriate, you can ask a person which they’d prefer, or learn by listening to them describe their loss. Language is tricky, but give yourself grace and space to learn what works best for your friend. 

When in doubt, practice honesty. You can start with “I’m not entirely sure what to say or how to say this, but…”.  Even if you can’t find the “perfect” wording, your friend will likely recognize and appreciate your consideration.

5. Seek Professional Help

During this time, you may recognize that your friend needs more professional support than you’re equipped to provide. While it’s important to be a compassionate, loving friend, it’s just as crucial to take care of yourself and, if necessary, consult mental health professionals for additional guidance.

At times, your friend may request some space to process their thoughts, make funeral arrangements, or generally decompress without the pressure of socializing. These requests may simply be part of their grieving process; but if you’re concerned about their mental health and safety, you can offer to accompany them to a doctor’s appointment, therapy session, or even a support group for people who are grieving.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988, and is available 24/7.

Online Therapy Can Help People With Grief

After a loss, your friend may have a hard time leaving their home and engaging in therapy or other activities. If your friend wants to improve their mental health but doesn’t feel ready to commit and commute to in-person counseling, online therapy is an accessible, convenient alternative. Digital platforms like BetterHelp connect people to licensed therapists, allowing them to work through grief, sadness, and related mental health concerns from the comfort and safety of their homes. 

Online therapy is an increasingly popular and effective tool for people experiencing a range of mental health concerns. In a 2015 study of people experiencing complicated grief, researchers found that therapist-guided, Internet-delivered exposure therapy effectively reduced participants' grief symptoms and “rumination,” or repetitive thoughts about the loss. While more research is needed on the benefits of online therapy for grief, this may become an integral option for people who want to heal from loss but feel more comfortable engaging in therapy at home, and at times that complement their schedule and healing process.

Takeaway

If you’re wondering how to help a friend navigate their grief, you’ve already taken the first step. Allow your curiosity and prior knowledge of your friend to guide you through the process of supporting someone in the aftermath of loss.  It’s okay to not know where to begin; but with these 5 tips and the expertise of a licensed therapist, you’ll be able to walk alongside your friend with concern, care, and compassion. 

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