How To Help a Grieving Friend

Because I get that you don’t always know what to do or how to help…

Yesterday was National Grief Awareness Day and today is International Overdose Awareness Day so, you know, it’s a little rough for me (to say the least).  For any newbies, my little sister Melissa had an accidental prescription opioid overdose in 2016, and my dad passed away in 2019 due to Myocarditis; because of the essentially, can we call it tragic (?), amount of loss that I’ve dealt with over the past few years, I’ve kind of deemed myself a grief advocate.

This post is long overdue and, if I’m being totally honest, I definitely procrastinated writing it because of the fact I can barely write one paragraph without crying.  As you’ll learn below, grief has no expiration date. It’s not linear, and it’s most certainly not easy.  I hope that these tips help you and/or help you help your friends who are experiencing loss. <3

How To Help a Grieving Friend

quote to help a grieving friendVia @OurHouseGrief

Simply reach out.

It sounds like a big, fat duh but, believe it or not, it’s not that obvious to everyone.  After my sister died, a now former friend told me that she and another former friend “really wanted to help but didn’t know how,” so they just DIDN’T.  Instead of asking how to help, or even just reaching out and saying hi – they choose to do nothing.  Honestly, it kind of blew my mind that anyone could think that way, but it happens.  At the end of the day, even if you have no clue how to help, just reaching out will make your friend feel loved and supported.

advice on how to help a grieving friendVia @AllThingsGrief

Don’t just ask “how are you?”

I certainly didn’t predict that I’d be so triggered by this question via text – honestly, I still can’t stand it – but definitely don’t text your friend “how are you?”  When I’d see this text pop up I’d always WANT to write the real answer: “Well, I got out of bed before noon today, so I guess that was a win.  I haven’t done laundry in three months, I have a dish full of dirty dishes even though I have a dishwasher, and I am functioning at the absolute bare minimum when it comes to work.  Is that what you wanted to hear via text?”

I remember telling other friends about the handful of well-intentioned people who would ask me this question and then told them what I did – I would either not respond at all or I’d write back something generic like “hanging in, thanks” just to end the conversation.  My point is that the question comes off a little ridiculous to someone who is very clearly struggling; while I do think it’s great to check in, and I also get that you might not know what to say…”How are you?” definitely isn’t it.

Try messages like:

  • Was thinking about you today. Sending you love.
  • Here if you want to cry! (or vent, or talk)
  • I love you. <3
  • I hope today was a little better than yesterday
things to do to help a grieving friendVia @OptionB

Help with the little things.

When my sister Melissa died my friend Devon came over immediately.  I didn’t ask her to, but when she found out the news, she said “I’ll be there in 20 minutes” so I didn’t have the opportunity to even pretend that I didn’t need support.  While she was over I was booking my flight back to New York and also felt this intense urge to scan a ton of photos of me and Melissa and, while I did this, Devon started washing the pans in my sink; we laughed and I told her “what are you doing? Just leave those!”  She ignored me, of course, and even though it seems like a silly thing, not having to wash those dirty pans saved me a little bit of energy that I really needed that day.

I love the above text that I saw on a grief Instagram account because when someone is deep in early grief they are definitely not going to have the capacity to even KNOW what kind of help they need (case and point- those pans would’ve sat in my sink for a week if not for Devon).  My friends Marisa and Annette ordered me meals that week so I didn’t have to use my minimal brain energy to think about food, several of my friends volunteered to watch my cats while I was in New York – it’s little things like that, you know?

quote about griefVia @SpokenGrief

Don’t compare griefs.

This was another big trigger for me, especially when Melissa died.  I swear, if one more person compared the time their 95-year-old grandmother died to losing my 29-year-old sister…NO.  Don’t get me wrong, grief is grief and it’s certainly not a competition (of course your grandmother’s death is sad!).  But I legit wanted to punch the well-intentioned people (yes, they all do mean well) talking about their grandmother who lived for almost ONE HUNDRED YEARS to my little sister who wasn’t even 3o.

Send them a text/email with a nice memory about the person who died.

The above messages are notes I got that meant so much to me; I took screenshots and saved them.  The first, a really nice girl I went to high school with who I haven’t seen since 2001, but her message honestly meant the world to me.  The second, from my former NYC roommate Sarah.  Sarah wrote me a really long, beautifully written email that brought me to tears within seconds of reading it, but in the best way possible. Even if you don’t have it in you/the knowledge of the person who died to write a long message, you can see the first message from the HS girl meant just as much to me.  You don’t have to be a poet, you just have to think of something nice about the person who passed and take the time out of your day to send it.

Via @OptionB

Be there after the funeral, too.

It’s easy and totally normal to feel like the funeral is “closure” – it likely was to many people who attended.  That said, for the children of the person who died, or the spouse, or the sibling, it’s definitely not.  People start to forget, and especially after the first year anniversary of their death.  It’s honestly one of the hardest parts about grief, if you ask my opinion; you get to this place where you know they are gone and it feels (almost) normal…and then you get hit with some kind of wave of grief and, well, not everyone will get why.

Remember the important dates for your friend.  It takes five seconds to quickly enter a death anniversary or a birthday into your iCal, but it will mean the world to your friend to when you send them a text that says “Happy 30th to Melissa. Love you.”

Via @OptionB

Understand that there will always be triggers.

The triggers aren’t something that anyone can predict, which really sucks.  I’ve had quite a few; some friends have been accepting, and others have not (more on that below).  Obviously someone hurting your feelings or doing something you don’t approve of can’t be excused 100% of the time because of grief, but I really encourage anyone who has a friend going through it to try to give them a little bit of leeway. At the very least, it’s worth saying “hey, you seem to be really X right now and that’s not normally like you.  I know you’re dealing with a lot and want you to know that I’m here for you.”  For the record, exactly no one did that for me, but it would’ve been nice and very much appreciated.

things you can do to help a grieving friendVia @AllThingsGrief

Recognize the secondary loss(es) that will happen for them.

Secondary loss…ahhh. Something I had no idea even existed, let alone something that would happen to me.  Sometimes the people you thought you’d be friends with forever fade out, and it really, really sucks – I won’t sugarcoat if you, and there isn’t even really an eloquent way to say it aside from “it really, really sucks.”

My first secondary loss was “Judy” – she unfollowed me on Instagram after my sister died and it was truly shocking and more so just awful and sad.  Judy hasn’t experienced any real loss in her life, not that it’s an excuse, but I bring it up because then there were also friends who HAD experienced major loss (of parents) who also dropped off.  Then there’s the people who show up for you that you never expected – be one of those people.  At the end of the day, your grieving friend is dealing with SO MUCH, a lot of shit they don’t even realize that they’re dealing with, and to then to also have people they thought were their rocks abandon them, well, it has to be talked about.

Here’s a deep dive on secondary loss for anyone who is interested.

Via @MichelleDeville

Show up. Listen. Don’t fix.

Lastly, I know that this post is a lot.  Death and grief are things that make many people feel uncomfortable, hence the friends who abandon you (above).  If you take anything out of this blog post let it be this:

Show up. Listen. Don’t fix.

If you forget everything else I’ve talked about, you’ll be good with those three things.


Photo by Azusa Takano

14 thoughts on “How To Help a Grieving Friend

  1. I got a lump in my throat reading this post. You said everything right about how to help someone dealing with grief. Our society (generalizing) has a huge fear of death and grief, and the person suffering grief is, very sadly, often abandoned which multiplies his/her tragedy being dealt with. Your recommendations are excellent. Thank you for sharing your heart.

  2. Wow. This is all so true. I lost my brother of a heart attack and 8 months later my beautiful son, to an overdose. I relate to everything you wrote. Today is truly a sad day not only for me but to all the lives lost to this horrible disease. Peace to you

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  5. Jamie, Thank you for this. I’ve lost my mother to cancer, her dear friend ( who was like a second father) a year later; also to cancer. The in 2013 my stepmother suddenly died, her dear friend killed himself over the grief. In 2015 my beloved sister died unexpectedly and my father passed away a year ago. My dad we expected and I am glad he is at peace and not suffering. For me losing my sister was the worst, we were very close. We had each other our whole lives. I miss her every day. This piece you have written is so badly needed; How many times can hear “ Call me if you need something “. No, I can’t, I’m grieving. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed . I asked friends ( how many said” we are here for you” and you never heard from them again) please just reach out, call me text me, but don’t task me with something. Not helpful. Thank you for writing this, people really do need a primer. Our culture is so freaked about death and there is no known guidance of how to navigate it properly. I am reaching out to you with a huge hug and thanks. I am so very sorry for your loss. Your friend Devon had the perfect response. I am blessed with some great friends as well. My best to you.

  6. This post is beyond helpful as I have searched for ways to support terrible losses for my friends. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled this very topic only to come up with nothing of value. Grace Atwood directed me to it and I’m so grateful. I’m sorry for your profound losses and thank you for the insight.

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