It can feel very difficult knowing what to say or do when a friend or relative is grieving for the loss of a loved one. Everyone grieves in a different way and so no two people will need the same kind of support. Here we offer suggestions for how you can help both in the early days and over the weeks and months ahead.

In the early days

  • Be there for them: some people find it difficult to ask for help. Rather than saying ‘let me know if there is anything I can do’, try to be proactive and offer to do specific tasks. At first, your loved one might need help organising the funeral, making calls and filling out paperwork. During the early weeks, they might find it difficult to get out of the house or complete everyday tasks. You could offer to pop to the shops or get their shopping when you do yours. You might offer to prepare them the odd meal or cook a bit extra at home that can be packaged into ‘ready meals’ for their freezer.  
  • Be prepared to sit in silence together: this can be a difficult thing to do, but it’s also a very precious gift. If you visit and think you’ll struggle to sit quietly, then take a book or a quiet and unobtrusive craft activity with you.
  • Be prepared to listen: it might help the bereaved person to talk about what’s happened. They might repeat the same things over again. Don’t interrupt, but do show that you have listened to what you have been told. For example, you could say ‘Last time you told me that … What happened after that?’
  • Don’t feel you should have all the answers: a bereaved person might have a lot of questions, but don’t feel that you need to know all the answers. It’s OK to say, 'I don’t know' or 'I’m not sure,' if appropriate. Perhaps you could help them to find out the answers they need?
  • Be sparing with your own experiences: if you’ve suffered a bereavement, it might be tempting to share your own stories, to show that you understand. But try to resist this urge, unless you’re specifically asked: ‘What did you feel when … died?’. The recently bereaved person will be consumed by their own loss and won’t usually have the capacity to cope with other people’s stories.
  • Avoid saying ‘I understand’: you can never know exactly how someone feels, and even if you’re very close to them, you still may not know exactly how they felt about the person who has died.
  • Share positive memories: it might help the bereaved person to remember happy times with the person who has died. For example, you might say: 'Do you remember when we ...?' or '... may not have told you about this, but when we ...' or similar. Get the photo albums out, which helps the conversation to flow.
  • Try to remain neutral: as the bereaved person works through their emotions, they might make negative comments about the person who has passed away. Try to remain impartial and don’t say anything judgemental. If you’re trusted with difficult or very private information, it’s important to respect that. The person may just want to get it off their chest and then move on.
  • Stay in touch via telephone and email: short, frequent contact will be the most helpful, especially in the early days after the death when there is so much to do in practical terms. However, understand that on some days the person you’re supporting may not want to talk. If that is the case, contact them on another day.

Over the weeks and months ahead

  • Keep inviting the bereaved person to activities: keep the lines of communication open by continuing to invite the bereaved person to activities that you might normally do together. This might be an organised club or activity, or just meeting up for coffee or lunch. You may get several refusals but, if you can avoid seeming to nag the bereaved person, they might be grateful to see you or do something ordinary, especially if it’s for a specific and predictable period of time.
  • Be mindful of special dates: Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries, including the anniversaries of the death and the funeral, can be particularly difficult for the bereaved person. Show them that you’re thinking about them at these times, but offer choices. Be aware that some people may prefer to be alone with their memories on these dates.
  • Offer your practical skills: if the person who died was the cook for the household, offer to teach your loved one how to prepare simple meals. If the DIYer or gardener has died, you might offer to be available for urgent simple tasks, such as changing light bulbs or simple seasonal gardening chores.

What to say to someone who is bereaved and has dementia

There is no simple answer to this question as it will depend on the degree of cognitive impairment and the nature of the relationship the person with dementia had with the person who has died.

If the person with dementia is cared for by professionals, seek their advice. See also the information on supporting a person with dementia during a bereavement  provided by the Alzheimer's Society.

Related pages

  • Grief in children and teenagers: read about the best ways to be with and talk to children about the loss of a loved one.
  • What is grief?: there's no right or wrong way to grieve and here we look at how the experience of grief is unique to each person.
  • Benefits and finances when someone dies: there are various benefits that you may be able to receive when someone dies, including Bereavement Support Payment and help with funeral costs.

The EPiC Resource Centre is kindly sponsored by Cleenol: working for a cleaner, safer, kinder world.