Someone you care about is grieving

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is grieving.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation. 

What do you notice?

You notice someone you care about is deeply affected by a loss. Maybe you notice their low mood or more intense emotions, like anger or feeling overwhelmed. They also could be communicating feelings of guilt or emptiness. Maybe they appear unusually busy and are pushing themselves. Maybe they’ve complained about not sleeping well or other distinct physical or emotional disruptions that aren’t normal for them. They might also question their beliefs or life’s meaning in conversation.

What do you need to understand?

Grief is a natural human emotion. It’s part of the human experience and affects us physically, emotionally and spiritually. Grief is an uncomfortable emotion to experience, which is why we often try to distract ourselves or stay busy. Grief comes as a result of loss. Examples of loss can include loss of someone we loved or was in a relationship with, loss of a way of life or loss of an expected opportunity to name a few.

We pass through different stages while grieving, defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as the five common stages of grief:

  • Shock/denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

However, we often don’t progress through these phases in a linear fashion, nor do we follow a specific timeline for processing loss. Grief is truly unique to everyone, based on our beliefs and influenced by culture and our personal experiences. Sometimes significant events – such as a retirement, a marriage or a birthday – can take someone back into one of the phases years later. Be patient with someone who’s grieving. They’re facing something painful and uncomfortable.

What do you need to consider?

If you’re concerned for someone who’s grieving, they’ll likely experience a range of emotions, which can result in outbursts towards others or withdrawal. Be patient and understand the emotions aren’t necessarily directed at you. They’re likely the individual’s frustrations as they  process the loss. While we can offer perspective and normalize another’s pain when we relate our own experiences, everyone grieves differently. It’s best to try and understand the other’s experiences before drawing on yours or those of others you’ve known who’ve grieved.

Engaging in a supportive conversation?

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I noticed that you seem [busier, withdrawn, overwhelmed] lately, and I’m concerned for you. What’s happening?”
  • “I noticed that in conversation you seem to be questioning some of your beliefs . What’s changed for you?”
  • “You’ve been mentioning disrupted sleep for a while now. What do you think’s impacting that?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person’s open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing you feel the need to stay busy as the pain of the loss is too overwhelming to bear at times. Is that correct?”
  • “It sounds like you are questioning some of the beliefs you had prior to your loss. Is that what I’m hearing?”
  • “You’ve shared that since your loss, sleep has been disrupted. Did I hear that correctly?”

Highlight strengths

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an example of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad you shared the way you feel. It’s not easy to share things that are uncomfortable, and it takes courage to speak about feeling vulnerable. Thank you again for sharing this with me.”

Identify what support

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources. Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to address [feelings that are overwhelming at times, questions about life’s meaning, disrupted sleep], so how can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that be helpful?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can support, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your own abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do to create change in the other’s life.

Create an action plan

Create an action plan with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to take action on. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: