Whether you are family, a friend, employer, teacher or other professional, you can do a lot to support bereaved adults and their families, even in simple ways.

What can help

Acknowledge their bereavement early on: Say something like “Hello, it’s good to see you. I am so sorry” or even “I don’t know what to say.”  Simple honesty is better than avoiding the subject. Crossing the street to avoid a bereaved person or looking past them can be very hurtful. 

Be led by them: How they respond to you saying “I’m sorry” will help you to understand whether they want to talk about their loss. A quick thank you and a change of subject mean they probably don’t want to talk at this point, a more open response may show that they do. If in doubt, ask them.

Mention their child if they want this: Be guided by them, but if they want to talk about their child, don’t be afraid to bring their child’s name into a conversation and share any memories you have.

Offer support that you can deliver: Practical support like preparing a meal can be very helpful, but do ask the person what they need. You could also offer powerful emotional support by just listening, giving them a hug or sending a card. Be honest with yourself about what support you can practically and emotionally manage. Perhaps you can offer lifts to school, while another friend has time for a regular cup of coffee. Bereaved people will recognise the value in each type of support.

Offer to find information for them: The practical considerations surrounding a death can be extremely difficult for grieving families to take in. Offers of help through this process can be invaluable.  If you are their employer, give clear, simple information about any leave they can take and any flexibility around their return to work.

Be patient: Grief can make anyone very sensitive, anxious or short-tempered. It may feel like you can’t say or do anything that will help.  Just being there for them without being intrusive may help them more than you know.

Keep in touch: There’s often a lot of support around when someone is first bereaved, but this reduces as time passes. Stay in regular touch and ask the bereaved person again a few months later if you can help, as people’s needs change. 

Remember anniversaries and special days: The anniversary of the death, birthdays and other special days may be very difficult. Sending a card, or just saying that you remember, may be very much appreciated.

Seek support for yourself:  Spending time with someone who is grieving often puts us in touch with our own losses. It’s important that you feel supported so that you can help your friend, relative or colleague. This is also important if you are a professional supporting someone who is bereaved.

What is usually not helpful

  • Don’t avoid them. A simple ‘It’s good to see you’ with a smile can help someone feel less isolated.
  • Don’t say ‘I know how you feel’ or make assumptions. Everyone’s experience is unique, even if you have been through similar experiences. Instead, acknowledge their feelings: ‘how horrible for you’ or just listen. Listening without judgement is a very powerful gift.
  • Don’t give your opinions on what the person should do, unless they ask for this. If they do ask for advice, try not to be offended if they then don’t take it. Everyone’s way of managing grief will be different.
  • Don’t act on the person’s behalf without consulting them. It may seem helpful to clear out a nursery after their baby has died or arrange the funeral for them, but it is crucial that these kinds of decisions are made by the parents when they feel ready. They have already lost so much – it is vital not to take away their control over important decisions in your own need to be helpful. If they ask you to help, that is different, and being alongside them while they make difficult decisions can be very helpful indeed.

What friends and family can do

When bereavement enters the workplace

Returning to work when a baby or child has died: guidance for employers