How to Help a Grieving Friend

And 3 Things Not To Do When Someone Dies

Chances are you’ve known someone who’s died. Whether it was someone close to you or not, you may have wondered what you should say or do to help those closest to the deceased. I, myself, was a novice at this type of thing — that is until my sister’s tragic death one year ago.

Below is what I’ve learned about what you should do and shouldn’t do when helping a grieving friend/family member.

1. Try to not say “let me know if there’s anything I can do.” 

Of course you mean this sincerely and your friend will understand that. However, the challenge here is twofold: your friend has to first think of how you can help and then secondly actually follow up with you to get the help. And they’ll ask themselves if the offer was genuine or if you were just trying to be nice. Nine times out of ten, they won’t reach out.

Instead say:

  • “I’m going to take care of updating X group so you don’t have to worry about them. I’m the representative for X friend group. I’ve talked to everyone and they all send their love and care about you deeply. I’ll keep them updated so you don’t have to.” Lots of people will be reaching out to your friend and that can be overwhelming. Being a representative for a friend group lets the person know your group cares, but reduces the number of people your friend will have to respond to. My friend Jeanette did this for my college friends, and it was extremely helpful. In my Support Team one pager, I call this person the “advocate.” Download the Support Team worksheet here.
  • “I can research poems/readings for the funeral for you.” Sit down with the person and ask them what mood/feeling they want to go for. This way you can prepare a better list. Then, prepare a list of poems and readings for them. Note the best sites you found. This way if they don’t find something they like from your list, they at least know where to start. And let them know that there is no pressure to choose something from your list. Here’s a funeral poem site I used.
  • “I’m going to help you research/write the obituary, okay? I’ll come by on X date, I’ll ask you some questions, and then I’ll draft something for you.” If possible, come prepped with information about costs, typical length, and what should be in an obituary. You, yourself, will be surprised at just how much obituaries can be. Whether you actually write the obituary or just help with the research will vary with the situation and your writing skills. What your friend needs most right now is a guide. If you can be this in any small way, it will mean so much to them.Here are obituary guidelines from the LA Times obituary to give you an idea of the type of information you’ll need!

2. Don’t offer platitudes, like “it happened for a reason.” While well-intentioned, this can come off as minimizing.

Instead offer:

  • A positive memory/story about the deceased. Ideally, share something that you think will make your friend laugh or smile.
  • A listening ear. Sometimes just being with someone and listening can do a lot to validate their feelings and let them know you are there for them.

3. Don’t send flowers or perishable food. 

Everyone will be doing that — so rest assured it’s covered. And let’s face it most families won’t need more than 10 arrangements, and the average fridge can only hold so much baked ziti! Sending flowers and food are great, but it means that a lot of what really would help, the practical stuff, gets forgotten and falls to the grieving family. Luckily, here’s where you can help!

Instead send:

  • Non-perishable food, like a gift basket. These baskets are great for hosting or your friend can save for later. I’ll never forget seeing my brother-in-law as he attempted to freeze subs (sandwiches) as a way to deal with the massive amounts of perishable food he received.
  • A book. When my sister died, I received the book I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye and also a small daily prayer book called Jesus Calling. Both really helped — in the moment and at night when everyone was gone. If you can’t have a person telling you everything is going to be okay, then the second best thing is a book. This is especially good for your friends who are private grievers and may be less able to talk about their feelings.
  • A donation to a cause that mattered to the deceased. It’s always good to check if there’s a memorial fund. If there is, I highly recommend donating to it instead. Consider this: a memorial fund will let the family choose how to best to honor their loved one. In my sister’s case, we were shocked to receive over $10,000 from our YouCaring site! The practical person in me can’t help but note that this could have translated into flowers every week for 10 years if that’s what we wanted! In line with my sister’s passions, we’ve used it to further her love of art, the environment, and community. I’m forever thankful and know her friends are too, that we chose to honor her this way.

Bonus tip: Skip the flowers and send your friend the Survivor’s Guide, a step-by-step checklist that guides people through the logistics of death (planning the funeral to closing bank accounts, applying for social security). It will be the most thoughtful, practical gift your friend gets during this difficult time. Use code HalfOffGuide for 50% off any of the guides.

Do you have your own tips for how to respond to a friend who’s grieving? If so, I’d love to hear about it.