One of the best things you can do is simply stay in touch and be around for the person when you can. Many bereaved people find that friends and family initially rally round, but after the funeral they return home and the bereaved person can suddenly be left without much support. Try to keep in contact with them in the months after the death. If you live a long way away or have other commitments, check whether other relatives, friends or neighbours can visit the person from time to time.
The person may or may not want to talk about the death, but your company can be very comforting even if they don’t seem to want to speak. Support from others around them is very important for people coping with bereavement, so don’t avoid them even if you’re unsure what to say or how they will react.
Anniversaries of the death and other special occasions may be particularly hard for the bereaved person. You might want to ask them if they’d like to spend the day with you or give them a call to see how they are.
Talk to them
Try to encourage the bereaved person to talk about the person who died, without pressuring them to talk if they don’t want to. Even if you feel awkward about it, it’s a good idea to acknowledge the death the first time you see the person afterwards, by saying something simple like ‘I am so sorry to hear that … died.’ It’s best to avoid using euphemisms like ‘passed away’.
If they talk to you about the death or about the person who died, listen and don’t try to change the subject. Talking about these things is important for people who have been bereaved and they may need to talk about them repeatedly, particularly to begin with. This can help them to process what has happened. If they seem to find it hard to talk to people they know, you could suggest other sources of support such as Cruse Bereavement Care (0808 808 1677) or their GP.
Allow them to express how they’re feeling without judging them. People can find their feelings overwhelming after a death and they might be experiencing a range of emotions. Don’t worry if they react in a way you didn’t expect – for example, they might be angry or very anxious.
Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume you know how the person is feeling. Grief is a very personal thing and everyone reacts differently. Try to avoid saying things like ‘You must be very sad’ or ‘I know exactly how you feel.’ Also bear in mind that there is no set timeframe for grieving and some people may never get over the death completely. Don’t feel that they should be better after a certain time. If they seem to be struggling to cope or have been grieving intensely for a long time, you could suggest they might benefit from help from their GP or a support organisation – read Looking after yourself when someone dies for more information.
I had a friend in the States and we were talking after her son died. She lived just behind us and he killed himself. I said to her, “I know how you feel.” And she said to me, “Joyce, you don’t know.” And then after my son died I went back to her and apologised, because you don’t know until you have gone through it. It is sad. It’s hard.
While it can be useful to think about how you felt if you have been bereaved, don’t assume that the person you’re supporting will be feeling the same way. They’re more likely to feel comfortable talking to you if you don’t try to direct them or impose your own views.
Be careful about expressing views they may not share or that may seem dismissive of their loss, such as telling them that the person who died has gone to a better place or that they had a good long life.
Offer practical help
There is a lot to do after someone dies – read our factsheet What to do after a death for more information. People may be more responsive if you offer to help with something specific rather than tell them to ask you if they need anything. For example, you could offer to help with the cleaning, contact people about the funeral, or provide refreshments for a memorial service.
If you’re supporting an older person whose partner has died, this can bring significant changes to their life. For example, they may have lost their carer or the person they cared for, or they may be considering whether they now need to leave their home. Stress can make people more vulnerable to illness and practical concerns can increase the stress they’re under, so help them to look after themselves and suggest they contact their GP if it seems appropriate. If they’re worried about their income following the death, it’s a good idea to check they’re claiming all the benefits they’re entitled to. Call us on 0800 319 6789 for a free benefits check or try our online benefits calculator.
Don’t worry about getting it wrong
It’s very common to worry that you might make things worse by saying the wrong thing. However, avoiding the person or avoiding the topic of the death can leave them feeling very alone. People need support when they have been bereaved and if something you say upsets them, you can always apologise. It’s usually better to do something than nothing.
Our guide Coping with bereavement has information about how bereavement can affect you and advice on things that might help.