Helping People in Grief:

The Thousand Little Things You Can Do

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Highline College

bbaugher@highline.edu ● www.bobbaugher.com


I was on the phone with a friend last week. This woman has been through a lot in her life. Several years ago, her husband died leaving her with two young sons. Then, a few years later she went into her oldest son’s bedroom and found that he had died in his sleep. Last year, her remaining son died from complications of diabetes. As we

discussed what it means to get support from others, she encouraged me to write this article.


What is support, anyway? It really takes place in one of three ways:

1. Emotional Support—which is being a good listener

2. Instrumental Support—doing things for the person in need

3. Informational Support—providing materials to help the person cope

To these three I added 4. Checking in---weeks, months and years later


When a person experiences a death, those around him or her often ask, “What can I do?” Typically, as happened to my friend, there is a flurry of activity during the weeks after the death. You know what I’m going to say next. I’ve heard it from my friend and countless others reeling from a death: People gradually fade away and go back to their lives. In a way you cannot blame them. Work, family, and other responsibilities fill up the busy hours of their lives—and they move on while you are still hurting. So, what are the thousand little things that people in grief need from us? I won’t be listing a thousand here, but I’m going to give us a good start.


Here we go:

· Listen, listen, listen, shut your mouth, it’s their grief—it’s their turn to talk

· Don’t interrupt

· No clichés

· No judgment—Do not begin a sentence with: You should, You need to, Why don’t you?

· Omit any statement with the words, “At least…”

· Let them cry & cry

· Let them be in pain—you must understand this fact: You cannot fix this. You can’t.

· To repeat: Don’t try to fix it—you can’t

· Allow silence—just be with them

· Say, “I’m here for you,”

· Permit them to feel any feeling:

guilt, anger, denial, loneliness, shock, sadness, confusion

When appropriate, say things such as, “I’m so sorry” “I don’t know what to say.”

“This must be so hard for you.” “Tell me, really, how are you doing?”

Avoid trying to identify with their loss—don’t fall into the trap trying to show,

“I’m just like you.”

·Talk about things other than their loss—sometimes they just need a distraction for a time.

· Say their loved one’s name, such as, “I was thinking about _________ today and I just wanted you to know.”




*For a more detailed article on good listening, see Simple Steps to Support a Person in Grief at: www.bobbaugher.com


Instrumental Support—Here is another quick list:

· Give a ride

· Do an activity with the person to distract

· Phone call or Zoom

· Text often

· Ask about and share stories of their loved one—they will love this!

· Accompany them to an appointment

· Shop for them or with them

· Remind them of the things they’ve done well in their life

· Remind them that you care for them just the way they are

· Gossip

· Assist them in setting and working on a goal

· Show physical affection—touch in whatever way is comfortable for both of you

· Loan them something they need

· Ask, “How are you taking care of your body?”

· Teach them how to do something

· Help them organize pictures—ask for their stories that accompany the pictures

· Look after a family member

· Help take care of a pet

· Care for their plants when they are away

· Say, I’m here whenever you need me”—and mean it

· If possible, have a picture of their loved one in your home

· Cook for them or go out to breakfast, lunch or dinner

· Accompany them to an event

· Go for a walk

· Remind them how close the two of you are

· Find something humorous the two of you could share

· Watch a movie or go on YouTube

· Go to a concert, a picnic, to the park, the beach, a leisurely drive

· Help repair something around the house

· Vacuum the rug, wash the dishes

· Offer to help with paperwork

· Check in with their family members to see how they are coping

· Listen to old songs with them

· Discuss current events

· Send a card that simply says, “I care.”

· Play a game with them

· Buy this person a little surprise gift

· If this person is religious, ask if you can pray with them

· If they have a caretaker, thank him or her for the work they do

· Take care of yourself so you can be there for this person



Material Support

There are literally hundreds of materials on coping with grief.

Many focus on specific issues:

death of a child, a sibling, a grandchild a spouse, a parent, guilt issues, anger issues, afterlife beliefs, manner of death,

and personal stories of survival. What all of these have in common is this: Validation.

When in grief you feel like you are going crazy and—you are. It is powerful to read

something and say, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!”

· Books and articles—Some are guides to understanding the bereavement process.

Others are powerful stories of people whose loved ones died from any number of causes.

· Online—As you are well aware, there are an infinite number sites purporting to

offer help to bereaved people. You also know that not all sites are reliable, so be aware.

· Movies, videos—Watching a story on grief can be validating,

educational, and comforting

Checking in—weeks, months and years later

· It is very important that you find ways to remember, remember, remember important dates.

Their birthday

Their loved one’s birthday

Anniversary dates

Death date

· Send a valentine

· Send flowers

· Send a “Thinking of you” text

· Write a letter (yes, a real letter)

· Send a holiday card

· Send a text or an email

· Pick up the phone

· Leave an “I remember” message on social media

· Send a funny video

Make sure every time you do one of these you include their loved one’s name. It will always be music to their ears.


There they are—a beginning list of a thousand things you can do to be the angel in this person’s life. I’m sure you could add many more. Yes, your life is busy. However, by taking a few minutes out a few times a week, you will be much appreciated during a difficult time in this person’s life. The world needs more people like you.

The words of Maya Angelou say it all:

I’ve learned people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Thank you, Carol J

All articles are free to download