How to Support the Bereaved

Sooner or later we will all know someone who has been bereaved and we can wonder how we can help. 

There is much that can be said about how to support someone who has been bereaved and we recommend reading some books and/or undertaking some training if you are likely to be helping someone through their grief journey, or if you expect to come alongside bereaved people regularly.

A good starting point would be to read Sue Mayfield’s ‘First Steps Through Bereavement’ (Lion) and/or Wendy Bray and Diana Priest’s ‘Insight Into Bereavement’ (CWR) also to attend one of Care for the Family’s Bereavement Care Awareness days

In the meantime, here are some basic points about how to begin:

Get in touch

However ill equipped you feel, do make the effort to make contact and to say how sorry you are about the person’s loss.  One of the hardest things for bereaved people is the way that others can avoid them for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. You may be tempted to do so, but the truth is nothing you say will be able to take away the person’s painful feelings, and taking the trouble to contact them and to be with them will show that you care. If you knew the person who has died it can often help to share with them your special memories by letter or card, and to give them copies of photos you may have.  In any case don’t avoid speaking about the person who has died; talk about them with the bereaved person and use their name.

Listen

Most bereaved people feel the need to go over and over the details of the death. Doing so helps them take on board what has happened. They are beginning the slow process of getting the awful truth to sink in, however much they desperately want things to be different. Even though you may find it difficult to listen to the details, this is a powerful way to show your support.  Listening is also vital in understanding the bereaved person’s particular needs at any one time.  No grief journey is the same and each person will need to be supported in doing or not doing what feels right for them and however that changes.  For the same reason resist the temptation to give your own answers to their problems or to place upon them your own expectations.

Normalise their reactions

There is no standard or ‘right’ way for someone to grieve.  Most people feel a range of emotions as the days and weeks go by.  At the beginning they can feel ‘numb’, as if someone has turned a switch.  Many people will then have times of sadness and be tearful. The person may behave very differently to how they would normally and their moods may change quite quickly.  Emotions may even overlap, such as the person crying and laughing at the same time. They may feel angry about the treatment the person received or guilty that they did not do more for the person.

Some people need to be left on their own to cry – while others will want company while they keep busy, trying to face simple jobs.  Whatever the person’s reactions, do assure them that responses will vary, that oscillations are normal and that things will settle in time.

Help them practically

The offer of practical assistance can often be much appreciated

You could offer to:

  • Go shopping for them
  • Prepare meals for them
  • Transport them to or from appointments or to others in the family
  • Walk the dog
  • Do the washing up, run the washing machine or do some basic household chores
  • Deal with phone calls and emails
  • Help with paperwork
  • Take the person to make the funeral arrangements
  • Help them with making simple decisions, such as how to let people know about the death

The first few weeks are usually very difficult for a person who is dealing with a bereavement, and having you at their side may make all the difference. 

Support them Spiritually

Supporting a bereaved person spiritually will often mean assuring them that doubts and questioning are normal in grief.  Refrain from quoting Scripture or making faith statements that you think will make them feel better.  Often they will be viewed very differently to how you perceive them – or the bereaved person once viewed them – and may lead to more confusion and doubt.  It is usually best to reassure the person of God’s love and care, even if they can’t see that, and to demonstrate it in the way that you care for them.   

You may feel it appropriate to offer to them a booklet to assure them of God’s love, such as:

Or to offer to pray for them, or help them to light a candle in church or on-line.  In all, as bereavement can deeply challenge a person’s faith perspective, never assume that things will be the same as they were previously.

Keep supporting

It can be easy to assume after the funeral or when life appears to be returning to normal (such as the person returning to work) that the pain is settling too, but that is seldom the case.  Many people find the pain intensifies over the following months and each special date or new challenge can be very hard to bear. So support for the long haul – sometimes into years – is usually important. This can be particularly needed for bereavements where the person who died was young or was the main person in the bereaved person’s life, or it was a sudden or accidental death.  These types of death can have high impact and can often leave a person devoid of any purpose or hope and not wanting to continue with life. In these cases, or if there have been difficult relationships, multiple deaths or unresolved past bereavements, finding further support – through professional and/or peer support – will be particularly important (see www.ataloss.org).  It’s not uncommon in bereavement for people to want to end their life, in which case specialist help is particularly important.

Care for the Family have produced a useful downloadable guide to bereavement support for churches called ‘Walking through the valley’.

For further information on grief and how to support the bereaved see the Resources and Training sections on this website.