10 Ways to support a grieving friend (instead of saying “let me know what I can do”)

The holidays can be a complicated time for many…whether you’ve lost a family member or someone close to you, gone through a breakup, dealt with fertility issues, or any of the other myriad of issues that can bring us grief – it can feel lonely and overwhelming.

When my Dad died, I remember so many well-meaning people got in touch to send their condolences, ending with “please let me know if there’s anything I can do.” I’ll be honest, at the time I was so frustrated by that statement. I knew I needed help, but I had no idea what to ask for. It was like they were putting the responsibility on me to decide what they should do instead of…well…doing something. Plus, asking for help can actually be quite difficult and require a lot of emotional energy. It was easier to just say “thanks, I will” and never bring it up again.

Looking back I see that of course all those people truly did want to help – they just didn’t know how. Unless you’ve gone through it, it can be hard to come up with ideas for what a person who’s grieving might actually want or need.

That’s why when I had my friend Sadie Banks, founder of Good Grief Journals, on my podcast this December, I made it a point to talk about real-life applicable coping strategies for anyone in the midst of a struggle, but also to discuss ways friends and family can show up to support a person in grief.

Here are 10 ways you can support a grieving person

(Instead of just saying “let me know if there’s anything I can do”…)

  1. Invite them out (even if they say ‘no’). Keep inviting them out (even if they keep saying ‘no’). Bonus points if you tell them it’s ok to say no or if they can only stay for a few minutes. When you’re grieving it can feel super lonely and often you don’t want to be around people for awhile. But by the time you DO want to be around people again, people have stopped asking you to do things. Have patience and keep throwing out the life raft. One day, they’ll grab hold.
  2. Send a postmates or Uber Eats digital gift card. This is my go-to move. It’s the best possible option because it’s instantaneous, you don’t have to coordinate a drop off time, you don’t have to worry if it’s something they’ll like/be able to eat, and it requires no effort on their part. Grocery shopping and cooking (and other small mundane chores) are the absolute worst when you’re grieving. Take this one thing off their plate (or rather, put it on their plate? You get it.)
  3. Be their exit strategy/excuse to leave. If you’re at a holiday function, or a wedding, or in a situation where you think a grieving person might be triggered, offer to be their excuse to leave or let them know you’ll cover for them if they leave on their own. I’ll never forget a date who tactfully asked if I’d walk with him to the car to grab something right before the father daughter dance at a wedding I attended after my dad died.
  4. Send food in disposable containers (no dishes!). If you are going to drop off food, make sure you do so in disposable containers. I know, it’s not very enviornmentally friendly, but lemme tell ya, it SUCKS to have a mountain of dishes to do when you have no emotional energy. It also sucks to have to think about returning people’s tupperware. My guest Sadie straight up drops off paper & plastic goods like plates, forks, knives, and cups so the grieving person can just toss the whole thing for awhile instead of doing dishes. Genius.
  5. Pick up/drop off laundry with ample warning & no “visit”. A day or two ahead of time, text your friend that you’re coming to pick up their dirty laundry. Remind them the day before and one more time about an hour before you come by. Tell them to leave it on the porch – no “visiting” allowed – and that you’ll return in a few hours or the next day with their clean, folded laundry. This is especially helpful if they have kids.
  6. Babysit their kids. If the grieving person has kids, offer to take them out for a few hours. When you suffer a loss, there are often lots of logistical things that you might not want kids around to see or hear. And sometimes you just wanna freaking scream-cry without worrying someone is gonna walk in on you.
  7. Walk, watch, or feed their pet. Same vein here- basically if there’s a chore or task you can take care of without someone needing to do any emotional lift, do it. This is a super easy one for neighbors!
  8. Text or call them with no expectation of a response. It will be awhile before your friend is ready to engage. It might be weeks before they write you back. Here’s the key: in your text or voicemail tell them there’s “no need to respond”. Take the pressure off as much as possible. You can definitely call, but I prefer texting (yes you can say, “I’d love to call you and talk if you’re ready for that” in your text).
  9. When/if they do respond, invite them to talk about their grief (if they’re ready). So often, the grieving person just straight up doesn’t know what to say. Some ideas to help them along: have you had any forgotten memories pop up? Was there something you were looking forward to doing that feels different now? Do you have a favorite story that involves the person you lost? Often getting the ball rolling with a prompt can help the person open up. If they’re not ready to talk, keep reminding them you’re looking forward to when they do.
  10. Have Patience. Many of us who are in the thick of loss or trauma (or even if it’s been years) have a hard time articulating how we feel. Naming emotions is actually a learned skill that takes time to develop. Your person may yo-yo and be a flake for awhile. Patience for this can be the absolute greatest gift you can give.
  11. Holiday bonus: offer to put up their Christmas lights! My dad and I put up holiday lights together every year and I still haven’t been able to do it by myself. But last year a family friend invited me to help a recently-widowed member of their church by going over to hang their Christmas lights and decorations and it was SUCH a fun time! She was so cheered and it inspired me as something I can do every year for those who need it!

If *YOU* are the one grieving…

I want you to bookmark this blog post and send it to anyone who asks “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”/ Remember: they GENUINELY want to help you and simply need some ideas. Take the pressure off yourself to come up with something to say, and say the following:

“Thank you SO much for saying that- someone sent me this blog post on grief support and if any of these sound like things you’d be able to help with, I’d so appreciate it. Thanks for your support and your patience!”

If you’d like some more coping strategies or just want to feel less alone, please listen to Find Your Magic Episode #21 – we cover grief, trauma, anxiety, and real-life strategies to deal with it all.