03/19/2014 10:32 pm ET Updated May 19, 2014

Supporting Those Who Grieve

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Do you ever wonder what you can or should do for a friend or family member after they have experienced the death of someone close to them? Should you mention the person who died? Will it upset them if you do? How do you find the words to express your condolences?

You may be surprised to find that what you said that seemed just perfect yesterday seems inappropriate or even offensive if you say it today. On the other hand, words that stop a conversation one week may lead to an intimate dialogue on another occasion. While you have no way of knowing exactly how what you say will be received, don't let that stop you from reaching out.

In the Early Days

Your friend has so much to do at a time when they have the least ability to make decisions and accomplish tasks. You can show your support and how much you care through your words and deeds.

Offer condolences:

  • Use phrases such as "I am sorry to hear of the death of [person's name]" or "I can't imagine what you are going through, but I am here to listen."
  • Show empathy and compassion (rather than pity) through your eye contact and body language.
  • Ask permission to give a hug if appropriate.
  • Allow for silence; much sentiment can be conveyed without conversation.

Attend the funeral or memorial service, or offer to be at the house to help coordinate or host the reception afterwards.

Make a meal and deliver it:

  • Before you do the cooking, be sure to ask if there are any dietary restrictions or preferences.
  • Give your friend the choice as to whether they want you to come in for a visit or have you leave the meal at the doorstep.
  • Attach a note on each package with heating or serving instructions.
  • Add a bunch of flowers to brighten their spirits.

Offer to help with daily chores or errands:

  • When you are going to the market, ask if it would be OK for you to pick up fruit, bread, eggs, or other items they may need. Add a roll of postage stamps or a magazine as a little something extra.
  • Bring a bag of cleaning supplies and rubber gloves to the house, and offer to do the dishes or help in the garden.
  • Offer to have your handyman come over to do a few household repairs.
  • Take their children to an after-school activity or for a walk or to the park.

As Time Goes On

Those who are bereaved are often far too soon left to grieve alone, either because well-meaning people simply don't know what to say or do, or because the griever worries that he or she might be burdening friends by talking too much about grief.

Grievers keenly feel the pressure to say that they are doing fine even when they are not. They probably will need your support more as time goes on and others have gone back to their own lives. And although they need your help, they probably feel hesitant to ask. You can continue to show that you're caring through thoughtful gestures.

Stay in touch by phone, text message, email etc.:

  • Grievers don't have the presence of mind to reach out and call to ask for a favor; check in with them on a regular basis to let them know you care.
  • Even a short "I'm thinking of you" message can brighten the day of a griever and help them feel remembered.
  • Consider putting a reminder on your calendar to call them on the monthly date of the death or other important occasions.

Find a time that is convenient for them to have you stop in for a visit:

  • Offer to do a load of laundry or fold the clothes while you are visiting.
  • Make yourself available to sit with them quietly while they pay their bills, write thank-you notes, or read a book.

Invite meaningful conversation:

  • Use the name of the person who died and incorporate them into normal conversation.
  • Reminisce about times you spent together with the person who died, or what you remember your friend telling you about the person.
  • Tell a humorous story that makes them smile.
  • Remember that grievers often fear that the person who died will be forgotten; let them know that you have not forgotten.

It is never too late to offer condolences and show that you care. You may be surprised how much your support means to your friend and to you.