Helping a bereaved person 101

I’m grateful for every single thing that people have done for me / us since Greg died.

I was touched beyond words when my Usenet and bloggy friends sent me messages and gifts to let me know they were thinking of us.  Beyond words.  The fact that people I’d never met IRL wanted to let me know they care just floored me. Their continued support with a comment here, a message there helps.

Similarly, I was grateful for the messages and cards from friends and family.  They let me know they were thinking of us and the stories about Greg they shared with me are treasures.

I was blown away at the number of people who took the time to come to the funeral.  I wish I’d had the courage to look around the church and see everyone … but I couldn’t.  Knowing that the church was packed with friends and family really helped.

I’m grateful that my (now) boss had the compassion to allow ANY teachers / aides /staff from school attend the funeral.  Knowing that the principal, deputy, head of curriculum, teachers, parents etc from the school community were there really helped.  The fact that he also gave me a job on the spot when I asked really has helped us all just so much.

I was humbled when the women from our church got together and provided hot meals to our door every night for two weeks.

I was thankful that friends continue to give us meals and treats just because.

I love how my BFF sends me an e-mail every single day and makes me laugh.  She is awesome.

My girlfriends.  They are here for me whenever I need them.  They understand that some days they just need to come and be here.

My wider family.  The road has been rocky at times but they have really helped.

…and then there is my mother.  Words cannot describe my mother.  I am truly lucky to have her.  She is the wisest, most compassionate, helping, healing person I know.  My Dad can take some of the credit here too.

…and of course my kids.  Some days I feel that they are my reason to keep living.  They are beautiful, intelligent souls and I am so very proud of them.


But there are a few things I can think of to help others when trying to comfort a friend who is bereaved that I know would have helped me to actively DO something in my previous life.  You know, the life when I was happy and didn’t know what despair felt like and was trying to help bereaved friends.

Here are 10 things I can think of that I know now and I wish I knew then:

1. Use disposable containers for food if possible.  Or name them and call back for them in a few days time. I still have a platter here and I’ve got no idea who to return it to.  It sits atop my oven and mocks me.

2. Don’t expect the bereaved person to remember ANYTHING.  I have almost no short-term memory.  People think I’m joking because they are used to me being in control, organised, smart-yet-self-depreciating.  I’m not being self depreciating. I seriously can’t remember shit like I used to.

3. Grief is something you never get over.  I’m told that you can learn to live with it.  Don’t ask “so how are you really” if you don’t want to hear the answer.  Or don’t ask up front as it puts us into a position of having to respond when we may be struggling not to cry.  Especially at school where kids I teach might get confused to see me crying.
BUT dont’ not ask either.  Try just talking like a normal person and see where it goes.  Give the bereaved person enough space to say something without pressuring them into responding to a direct question.  Just “being” with a bereaved person is sometimes all that is needed and nervous chatter isn’t.  An alternative I like is when people say “I think of you often”.  Which brings me to…

4. Don’t say “what can I do to help” and expect the bereaved person to know straight away.  For a start, see point 2 above.   Either just DO something that you can do or tell them your plans for them but stress that they do not have to organise anything.
Speaking for myself, I’m all good with cooking and cleaning (mostly … although random window washers or vacuumers are always welcome) and childcare (lots of people have offered child minding, but the kids have lost their Dad too and we need to be together most of the time).
What I need help with is in mowing the lawn.  Servicing the car.  Changing the lightbulb in the stairwell which I need a ladder and 3 extra hands to do by myself.  Lifting heavy stuff like chook food out of the car and into the storage shed.

Make a definite time too – say “I’ll come over on Saturday morning to mow your lawn” or “I’ll drop by on Thursday afternoon to fix that leaking tap you mentioned”.

5. Remember that the bereaved person, especially the bereaved spouse will be living  the nightmare at some point every day (even on good days).  There is always the empty bed that you have to climb into at the end of every day.  The mornings when you wake up alone again.  I am told that the grief gets worse before it gets better.  The funeral is often conducted while the person is still in shock … a shock which may continue for months.  Then after about 4 months when everyone else is getting back to their normal life, we are left on our own (unless you have a BFF see above).  Be there for them and continue to be there for them.

6. Forget the platitudes.  I may just punch the next person that says “God never gives you more than you can handle” (he bloody well did). …

or “God needed him more than you” (cough … bullshit … cough)

or “Greg wouldn’t  have wanted to live if he couldn’t walk” (yes he damn well would have.  He would have done anything to stay with us).

…and if the bereaved person starts sprouting gibberish about  having talked to their loved one in a dream, or seeing signs from their dead partner, this is OK.  Don’t tell them they are being silly.  This is part of the processing for some people.

7. Be calm.  Take lots of deep breaths.  Calmness is catchy.  Be there.  Being at the important life events helps.  Calling on mother’s day was a biggie for me.  I imagine that I’ll be needing lots of phone calls and hugs on birthdays, anniversaries and deathdays.

8. Be thoughtful.  One of the nicest things a friend did for me was at a campfire party for a mutual friend – she knew that I’d struggle to be there and certainly wouldn’t be able to bring all the folding chairs and shite needed for this party – so she and her hubby brought extra chairs and blankets for us.  And wine. And at no point did I feel that  I was the single woman in a crowd of happy couples.

9. Share the memories.  Life stories are important.  Tell them what their loved one did for you / fun times you shared / memories. … unless of course you know they will be hurtful.

10. Listen with your heart as well as your ears.  Sometimes the words aren’t right but the heart knows what is needed…. like a shared tear and a big hug.

Above all, DON’T stop talking to the bereaved person.  You really have to try very hard to make them feel worse than they already do.  Just keep them in the loop.  Keep the e-mails, texts, quick conversations, facebook messages going.  Even a simple “I’m thinking of you” really helps.


Some days I’m OK, and other days I could easily Just Stop and surrender to the emptiness.  This is when I need help.

I’ve been really lucky in having so much support.  It’s been ongoing support. It’s been good support.

I’m truly grateful.


28 thoughts on “Helping a bereaved person 101

  1. Bush Babe says:

    Darl – I hope you don’t mind but I am tweeting this link – I think this is utterly invaluable advice to us all. Grief is an enormous scary thing – not nearly so scary on the outside, as the inside, I know. But still – the terror of doing or saying the wrong thing, and exacerbating the emotional damage of the griever, is ever present.

    Sending hugs and hoping to catch you when next in Brisbane (I know, not a firm date, but that’s the way things work with my crazy life, I’m afraid!)

  2. corymbia says:

    Thanks sweetie.
    You were one of those bloggy friends who pulled out all the stops for me. Cropping that photo of Greg was such a HUGE help.
    One day we shall meet up 🙂

  3. The Sheila says:

    I recently lost my mother to cancer and can honestly agree 100% with everything you’ve listed here. I especially really appreciate the texts with “I’m thinking of you, no need to text back” or whatever few words – it really makes me feel less lonely. And yes, we still have two bowls left and we have no idea who owns them. And those platitudes…. I had one last night by email from my mother’s sister – it’s going to take me a few days to calm down before I email back!

    I still think of you regularly, even though I don’t comment. I admire you so much for just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other. Wishing you and your smallies well. TS

  4. Aprill says:

    I agree that these thoughts are really helpful to those who have no clue, such as I. I hope you’re still finding some rays of light through the dark.

  5. love you babe.

    This was fabulous. Truly fabulous. So wonderful of you to share this.


  6. Jayne says:

    Think of you often, sending best wishes and love to you all xxxx

  7. twangy says:

    Well written – wow. Very eye-opening, in a good way.
    Hey maybe some day I’ll have the chance to mow your lawn, metaphorically, so to speak, since you will insist on living on the other side of the world. 😉

  8. thanks for posting this amanda…will be thinking of you all…especially tomorrow.

  9. that would be today…please tell your daughter i am thinking of her and congratulate her for me on being a year older please. i hope you are enveloped by family and close friends today.

    ps…i despise platitudes…1 corinthians 10:13 has been used and abused..too often in my mind.

    i prefer…you are loved.

  10. Jenni in KS says:

    Thank you for thinking beyond your pain and grief and sharing your experience to help others. This is such valuable advice. Most of us want to help, but we’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. I’m so glad you mentioned forgetting platitudes. I think people are usually just searching for *something* to say, but I wish they would put more thought into it or say nothing at all sometimes. It pains me to overhear these things at funerals, knowing how I would feel if they were said to me and also that they often just are not true. Finally, I don’t know you and this is the first time I’ve read your blog, but I am praying for peace and comfort for you and your family and that, even though the pain of your husband’s loss will never disappear entirely, you will find yourself smiling and laughing again at all the fond memories you have of him. Hold onto that love and all the beautiful memories that come with it.

  11. Rhu says:

    I am with you – platitudes suck.

    I think this is invaluable advice. I am passing this link along – if that’s OK with you? And you know I *do * think of you – and often. I am grateful how you have touched my life, you continue to awe me – that’s a good thing. x

  12. Fifikins says:

    Hey you! Thank you for sharing this.

    You know that if ever you want to come and show your kids the things you and Greg did whilst you lived up here I have a ginormous dungeon you can stay in and I’ll save up RDOs and take some leave to take you round and just be there. Hugs xxx

  13. Missy Boo says:

    You have put that so well into words. Oh and I still think of you often you know xxxx

  14. This Muttering from Corymbia deserves a shout!
    Thank you for sharing it.

  15. This should be the first thing people see when they google How to help a grieving friend.

    Everything from when my Mum died is a bit of a blur, but I do clearly remeber the people who didn’t say anything, didn’t even acknowledge me. They clearly had no idea what to say so thought nothing was better thananything, it isn’t. We forgive people who put their foot in it by saying the wrong thing.

  16. corymbia says:

    Have I told you all that you ROCK? thanks for all the kind words – I know that a lot of you also know what it’s like…. but I didn’t know until now.
    I know *I* didn’t call a friend who lost her husband about 5 years ago …. I didn’t know what to say and the time got longer and longer and I still didn’t call. She is a very understanding friend though and checks up on me regularly….

  17. Sven says:

    Well said. Your growing. Never stop..

  18. Karen says:

    Have been thinking of you and praying for you. I read your list just now and cried. It is very good and helpful advice. Please take care, and know that you are thought of.

  19. Bush Babe says:

    You know what? I was SO pleased that I could do something USEFUL for you… it was like a little gift to me, really. The hard part of standing on the outside of grief is not being ABLE to help. And I could. If just for a moment. So thank YOU.
    PS Yes, we will meet. Let’s plan it.

  20. The Sheila says:

    Can I add one more on here? After my mum died, we tried to send memorial cards to those who had sent cards. However most people had just signed their cards as “Tom and Ann” or “Joe and Mary” – you’ve no idea how many couples have those names in Ireland. If people could write their full names and addresses on their sympathy cards, it would make things so much easier afterwards when you’re trying to make sure you’ve spoken / wrote to everyone who sent a card.

  21. corymbia says:

    Oh yes Shelia. I’ve had lots of those from people I hardly know who assume that I’ll recognise them by their patented “George and Ann” on the card.

    That and the cards addressed to “Mandy” … no idea who she is. My name has, and always will be “Amanda”.

  22. Mrs Woog says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. It is brilliant.

  23. It was after the funeral that I needed help and it was also after the funeral that everything went deathly silent. The phone that had rung off the hook in the lead up to the funeral stopped ringing and it was like Veronica and I didn’t exist anymore.

    But my best friend rang me every day for the first week and every second day for the next week and every few days after that. Tanni just stayed silent on the end of the line while I cried. She didn’t make soothing sounds or talk, she just let me cry for a couple of minutes and then when I had gotten my shit together she let me talk. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the first awful months without her.

  24. Wanderlust says:

    This is wonderful. So many people need to hear this. I never knew what to say or do either before I experienced loss myself. I always tell people not to say “tell me if you need anything”. I hated that one. Of course you need something! But you’re in no position to plan, organize and ask for it.

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Wishing you and your family peace and comfort.

  25. I agree with Wanderlust. Such an important post. It reall is so hard to know what to say, but i believe above everything else that saying nothing is not an option. I know when i’ve been through difficult times (depression, my dad dying) that i felt devastated when good friends said nothing. You feel utterly invisible.

    Thanks for sharing this stuff.


  26. One day I will get to meet you face to face….and give you that HUGE hug I’ve been saving for you

  27. source says:

    This blog has lots of very useful information on it. Cheers for informing me.

  28. This is such an important post because people mostly always want to help but don’t know the best way to go about it. This tells them how to. I am off to let a friend know I am thinking about her right now. Tonight is a night that I know she will definitely be missing her loved one. Thank you for the reminder. xx

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