How to Comfort a Friend Who’s Lost Someone

Your good friend is in mourning. There are no words that can make the death of someone that they love "OK."

It might be tempting to say nothing rather than say the wrong thing—but indeed, now is the time to speak up—especially if you can't be there in person. The simple act of connecting (whether by phone or even online) may be a lifeboat in the sea of isolation that often overtakes people who are grieving.

That's why knowing what to say is key—as well as how often to check in. Follow these tips on how to comfort a friend who's lost someone.

What Does Grief Feel Like?

Comfort starts with empathy. If you've been fortunate enough to have never lost someone close to you, it can be difficult to understand exactly how your friend feels.

And even if you have, no two people will grieve exactly the same way. Make the effort to put yourself in their shoes. What will their life be like without this person?

"It is important to recognize that everyone's grief process is unique to that person," said Dr. Kathy Wilson, a clinical corporate trainer for Life Extension with a PhD in psychology. "The one thing we can do is offer support, empathy, compassion and kindness."

So how do you know what your friend is going through—whether it's anger, sadness, anxiety, numbness, or all of the above? Ask. And be there to listen to the answer.

What Your Grieving Friend Wishes You Would Say

Younger man comforting grieving older man

If you think someone who is grieving expects wisdom from you-sage advice that you can't readily produce-you might be relieved to hear that your friend's needs are much more straightforward in this situation.

"Assure these individuals that they are not a burden and you are here to listen to and support them," Dr. Wilson advised. "It is important to let them know that you care for them, you are here for them, you are willing to listen no matter the time of day. Even sitting with them on the phone in silence can provide foundational support they need to keep going."

Andrea Row, who leads the Buffalo, NY, chapter of Soaring Spirits International, a grief support organization for widows, remembers that it was this kind of support that was most helpful to her when she lost her husband.

"What someone in mourning needs to hear the most is, "I am here to listen and to be there for you if you want to cry," she advised.

Sharing a favorite memory of good times or photo of the person who has died can also be a very meaningful gesture, Row added.

What NOT to Say to a Grieving Friend

Some things you should NOT say to your friend include:

  • I went through the same experience. Or worse: What I went through was even more painful. Focus on what your friend is going through rather than making this about yourself.
  • You'll feel better soon. Row said that the second year of her widowhood was harder than the first, and that even more than a decade later, she still feels a wave of fresh grief with every one of her children's milestones she witnesses without her husband present. Judgement from family and friends that she should be "over this already" has been hurtful.
  • You were doing so well yesterday, what happened? People in mourning may seem to cheer up one day and then return to sadness the next day—this rollercoaster of emotions is part of the process and not something to chide them about. "Remind them that you are there for them in the good times and the bad," said Dr. Wilson.
  • It was God's will, he or she is in a better place, or other religious explanations that depict your friend's grief as a "silver lining." Even if your friend shares your faith, this is not the time to try to put a positive spin on a devastating situation.

If you notice someone else making unhelpful comments, piping in, “Those are not comforting words,” can gently guide the conversation in the right direction, Row advised.

Things You Can Do Online To Comfort Your Friend

Saying that you care is important—but showing your support can go even further. In an ideal universe, you'd be able to mow your friend's lawn, make them dinner, or walk their dog. If distance (whether social or old-fashioned geography) makes that impossible, here are some practical ways you can help online:

  • Connect your friend to online support groups.
  • Order delivery of food or groceries for your friend.
  • Organize a to-do list of chores your friend needs taken care of and ask people in your circle to volunteer to help—whether it's communicating about the memorial or running errands. This will help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that comes with grieving. (Soaring Spirits offers this to-do list in its Newly Widowed Packet.)
Woman engaging older man on a computer video call

What If Your Friend Reacts Poorly to Your Gestures?

So you've followed the script of what to say and do, carefully avoided landmines, like judging how long your friend should be sad…only to have your words met with radio silence.

Or worse: anger.

Try not to read into it.

In the months following her husband's death, Row admits that she found herself annoyed by harmless pleasantries, such as "How are you?" She would fume to herself, "How do you think I'm doing?"

She also says she probably did not say thanks to all of the people who reached out to her to express sympathy and sorrow: "I was just so overwhelmed."

Keep reaching out—manners may be the last thing on your friend's mind.

How Long Will Your Friend Need Emotional Support?

Is there a certain time when you should stop asking how your friend is doing? Not really, said Dr. Wilson: “Grief does not follow a specific timeline. They may have a day when they feel great, and then something may trigger them and send them downward again. The best thing you can do is continue to offer emotional support to the griever.”

Ladies offering each other support with an embrace

If you think about other friends or family who have lost loved ones in the past few years, maybe you realize you've not done a great job of checking in. Perhaps you were their rock at the funeral, but then life got busy and they seemed "fine," so you stopped asking if they needed to talk.

There's no time like the present to call these friends to let them know they are in your thoughts. Meanwhile, set some reminders on your phone to reach out to the bereaved:

  • On the birthday of the person who died, as well as the one who survived. If they have an anniversary, that date is important, too.
  • On the holidays—see if they want company at Christmas or can join your Thanksgiving table.
  • On the anniversary of the day the person died.
  • On Mother's Day or Father's Day, if those holidays are significant.
  • Any other days that were important to your friend or the person he or she lost—maybe the survivor's mother was known for her over-the-top Academy Awards watch parties, or your friend and his partner loved a musician who will be on tour next year. Send a text saying how great the new track is and that you're thinking of them both.

Row notes that one of the hardest parts of becoming a widow was her social isolation. Most of her friends had been couples, and then she became the awkward third wheel. As the years passed, friends seemed less sympathetic about her loss and dropped her from the invites. If you’re part of a greater friend circle, make every effort to be inclusive, long after the grief is fresh.

What If Your Friend Expresses Suicidal Intent?

Unfortunately, suicide is not uncommon when someone loses their "person." Upon losing their spouse, for example, men are 90 times more likely and women are 120 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide. Studies show, however, that intervention from friends and family can help.

If you are concerned about your friend's safety, Dr. Wilson advised reaching out immediately for professional help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a good place to start.

"You can offer to go with them if they do not feel comfortable driving," Dr. Wilson added. "You are showing your support and concern by getting them the help that they need."

Managing Your Own Emotions

You want to be a good friend and help a friend in mourning—that's great. But perhaps this death has impacted you as well—if not as grief, as anxiety. Those are emotions that need to be worked through.

Middle-aged couple walking along the beach

Even if you didn't know the person who died, every time someone loses someone, it hits close to home; there may be a little voice inside of your head whispering, "That could have been my mother, my father, my spouse, my child. It could have been me."

And maybe you feel guilty for this thought. Don't. Death impacts us all.

"Supporting someone while ignoring your own stress, anxiety or sadness will only hurt you in the end. It is important to recognize your limitations and only give as much as you can," Dr. Wilson said. "If you are caring for someone who is grieving, recognize when things are triggering to you and make sure that you voice your feelings to someone who is trusted."

She added that it's important to practice self-care and make mental health a priority, particularly when your stress levels increase. This includes:

When you take time for yourself and to manage your own emotions, you'll be in a better place to empathize with your close friend. Which ultimately is what she or he needs right now, more than anything.

About the Author: Jorie Mark earned an English degree from University of Pennsylvania before getting a master's degree in creative writing from American University. She is a content and social media expert with 20 years of experience in social media, editorial content, digital marketing, events, public relations and food and lifestyle writing. She is also a published author.