I think the most important thing is that you say something.
Often, because we fear upsetting someone or just feel awkward because we don’t know what to say, it can seem easier and, perhaps kinder, to avoid the situation completely. There is also a strange phenomenon where people avoid engaging with people who are grieving because, on some level, they think that it is in some way catching, that associating yourself with grief and death might somehow bring this to you. Of course, rationally, one knows that that is nonsense, but it is still one of the reasons why people prefer to stay clear of the situation and instead send a note or flowers rather than making a call or visit.
Bereaved people need to talk. Talking about how you feel releases the pressure that builds up and allows you to get some sort of order to your thoughts. Grieving is completely natural, and it is a process. Though it is not the linear process of the five stages that is often quoted in this context, it is definitely something that has to be worked through if people are to reach a sense of acceptance of the loss that they have suffered and be able to look towards a future without that person.
Therefore, open questions which encourage a person to discuss their feelings is always a good place to start:
How are you feeling? How are things today? It seems so simple one but open questions like this can often be the prompt someone needs to start to open up.
How can I help? It’s good to be honest and admit that you’re not sure what to do. Allow them to tell you how they personally feel that you could make a difference.
NB. It’s really important that you allow silence to happen and that you don’t try to hurry or interrupt the person. You cannot “solve” their grief so don’t try to offer suggestions or things that you think might help. You need to encourage them to find their own ways through their grief, and the best way to do that is by listening.
If they’re not ready to talk at that moment, then keep reassuring them that you will be there for them when they feel able to.
In addition, it’s not just good for people to talk about how they are feeling, but it’s also good for them to feel that they are able to talk about the person that they have lost. It can be extremely comforting for someone to talk about their loved one, the stories and memories they have, as it keeps the person alive for them and reassures them that their loved one is still a part of their lives, just not a visible part. This remains the case for people who might have lost someone decades ago: just because somebody has died, it doesn’t mean that they have stopped being a part of someone’s life and mentioning their name and talking about happy times can be of great comfort.
So, to conclude, the most important thing is that you don’t avoid the subject. You will know straight away if the person doesn’t want to talk about it but, at least, offer them the opportunity to do so and make it clear that you are always there to listen.
And, if you are becoming worried that someone is really struggling with their grief then let them know that there are professionals out there who can help them.
The Coronavirus outbreak means that people may be cut off from their usual support networks so make sure that they are aware of the following helplines:
Cruse Bereavement Care 0808 808 1677
Samaritans 116 123