Whether death is unexpected or after a long illness, the passing away of a loved one is rarely easy. So how can you help someone through such a difficult time?
When a friend or relative is dealing with the death of someone close, many of us feel lost beyond saying ‘I’m so sorry’. What’s actually useful? Should we just turn up with food? How much admin can we help with? Do they want someone to cry on or someone to feed the cat?
The truth, of course, is that grief is complicated, shattering and not something you can magic away for someone you love, however much you wish you could. Bereavement affects people differently, and what is comforting to one person might not work for the next. However, that’s not to say there aren’t feelings and issues common to many, and therefore some ways to offer practical, useful help alongside emotional support.
Andy Langford, chief operating officer at UK charity Cruse Bereavement Care, stresses the importance of taking cues from your loved one and, above all, being aware that grief is not a fast or simple process: try to lose any preconceptions of how someone ‘should’ be behaving.
“We all grieve differently, and grieving can take a very long time – there is no time limit. Using phrases such as ‘time heals’ is unhelpful and can be very damaging to the person grieving,” he tells Stylist.
“How you support someone will largely depend on your relationship. Try to keep in regular contact and gauge when they need your support. They may not respond to your messages, but do not lose heart, as your offers of practical support will show them you are there.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the trauma of bereavement, but if you’re struggling to know how to support someone, the suggestions below may be a start.
Don’t delay contact with a loved one who is grieving
It’s easy to feel helpless, and you may worry about adding to their mental load by getting in touch. But Langford says calling, writing or visiting is crucial in the early days: “It might be difficult to find the right words, but the worst thing you can do is to ignore or avoid it.”
Catrin, 37, was in shock when her dad died suddenly in 2014, having previously been fit and healthy. She and her family found contact comforting. “I don’t know where I would’ve been without my friends checking in,” she says. “My mum had lots of incredibly touching cards and notes; she felt especially grateful to those who told her there was no need to respond. Something in the gesture of letting someone know you’re thinking of them while simultaneously making it clear that you don’t want to add to their burden is one of the kindest things you can do.”
Lauren, 36, lived in a different country to her family when her partner passed away unexpectedly in 2017. She appreciated people offering to stay with her before relatives could make it: “I spent the first few days at friends’ houses, but when I went home I was scared to be alone so a couple of friends took turns sleeping in the living room until family arrived.”
Think about daily tasks that might be difficult for someone who is grieving
Langford says: “In the weeks following [a death], the bereaved person can be busy arranging the funeral and filling out documents. Offering useful and practical support, like cooking dinner, doing the shopping or picking children up from school can be a big relief.”
Catrin agrees: “While I was staying with my mum, one of my friends went to my flat to put out my rubbish and chuck out the milk. Others came over and entertained the children in the family while we were dealing with it all. It was a real godsend.”
Sarah, 34, and a group of friends penned a visiting schedule when their friend’s wife died after a short illness. “He lived away from us, so we went over in shifts for a few months and helped with general chores,” she recalls. “It meant that when he was ready for things like packing up her clothes, he didn’t have to face it alone.”
Bring food that might help someone cope with loss
Eating can quickly drop to the bottom of the priority list, so cook, shop or even drop off a gift card for their closest café. “Something that really stood out was people bringing cooked food, enough meals for days,” says Lauren.
“I think in the first few days you need people to look after you as you can’t think straight or do anything for yourself. You forget to eat, so having nutritious food is amazing.”
As with messages, food can be a low-maintenance way of saying you’re thinking of someone – leaving a pot of food on a doorstep means you’ve taken a task off their hands without them having to have visitors if they don’t feel up to it.
Offer to make calls for a friend who is grieving
Catrin and Lauren both say that they found having other people to help break the news was incredibly helpful.
“We wanted those who knew my dad to be told sooner rather than later, but I found those calls and messages massively difficult, psychologically,” Catrin recalls. “A couple of close friends offered to contact various people and that was a big relief. When you’re in shock it can be difficult to summon the words to explain what’s happened, as your own brain hasn’t really computed it.”
Help with the paperwork that can be overwhelming when grieving
“The awfulness of a sudden death is compounded by the fact that there is a whole load of admin and also a funeral to plan,” explains Catrin. “You’re in the nightmarish scenario of being a family in a state of devastation and given assignments with looming deadlines.”
Someone who is grieving may have it covered, but equally, they may be finding the to-do list overwhelming. So ask. Of course there’ll be instances where nobody but your friend can make decisions or speak to a company, but acting as a note-taker or an emotional buffer can be just as useful.
Sarah says: “One friend made a list of tasks that we divided between us, informing banks, relevant government departments etc., even if sometimes all we could do was go with him and remember what they’d asked him for. Our friend later told us that this was a massive help when he was dazed with grief and having to repeatedly tell strangers that his wife had just died.”
Many banks have excellent online resources with FAQs, as well as specialist bereavement teams. And while you cannot do everything, HSBC, for instance, tells Stylist that sometimes you can act as an ‘advocate’. The bank is legally required to deal with named executors or next of kin (depending on whether there’s a will), but the bereaved person can nominate an advocate by contacting the Bereavement Support Team and giving consent for them to speak with the bank on their behalf.
Death Notification Service – useful when there are several accounts with different banks
Tell Us Once – informs relevant government departments without the need to contact separately. The registrar should flag this, but you can check if an area uses the scheme here
Gov.uk’s guide – a useful to-do list to start with
HSBC step-by-step guide and checklist – keep track of who’s been informed and what contact there’s been
Funeral Expenses Payment – potential help with funeral costs
Children’s Funeral Fund for England – as of 1 July 2019, a government scheme will cover fees charged for a child’s cremation or burial
Realise they may need to talk about the person that they are grieving
Your friend may want to talk about something completely unrelated or you worry that you’re going to upset them, but often people want to discuss the person who’s passed away.
As Langford says: “It’s important to listen. We find that people who are grieving want to talk about the person who has died in the weeks and months after. If it is appropriate, encourage your friend to talk and try to create an environment in which they can be themselves and show their feelings, rather than having to put on a front.”
Check in regularly – especially around milestones
Grief doesn’t end after the funeral. “Be aware that birthdays, anniversaries and days such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can trigger painful feelings,” says Langford. “Acknowledging that these days are difficult and offering support will let them know you are thinking of them.”
Lauren adds that when it’s the loss of a partner, doing things alone for the first time can really hit home. “You need friends and family for those times; everything you do after is a milestone and it’s good to have people around.”
Sarah also explains how having good lines of communication helped her friend to discuss triggers. “There is a WhatsApp group between a few of us and he will mention things like his wife’s birthday, their wedding anniversary, her death anniversary, or accidentally breaking something of sentimental value. We check in with him regularly,” she says.
If you, or a loved one, would like support with grieving, please visit Cruse Bereavement Care.
Cruse Bereavement Care is the UK’s leading national charity for bereaved people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, offering face-to-face, telephone and website support. Visit the website at cruse.org.uk or call 0808 808 1677
Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland can be found at crusescotland.org.uk, call 0845 600 2227
Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org