When someone has been bereaved, family and friends can often find it difficult to know what to say or do.

When a friend, relative or colleague has been bereaved of someone close to them, our instinct is to reach out to them. However, the fear of saying or doing the 'wrong' thing can make some people feel anxious and hold them back from being supportive.

You can do a lot to support your bereaved friends, colleagues and family members, even in simple ways. Below are some tips to help you support someone who has been bereaved. You might also like to watch our guide to supporting someone who is bereaved for advice from bereaved families on what others did that helped them.

Should I say something to someone I know who has been bereaved?

Acknowledging the death of someone who has died is the single most important thing you can do. If you see someone you know who is bereaved, one of the most hurtful things you can do is ignore them, avoid them or pretend you haven’t seen them.

It can feel daunting to know what to say but it can help to remember that the person who is bereaved won’t expect or want you to have answers or to make them feel better. However, they will appreciate you saying something that acknowledges their loss.

If you don’t see the person, you could write or send a card or message. Acknowledging the death is much better than avoiding the subject.

What should I say to someone I know who has been bereaved?

Simply acknowledge what has happened as soon as you can. You might say: 'I’m so sorry to hear about {insert name/relationship}. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It must be such a difficult time for you'. 

Even saying, 'I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say', is better than saying nothing. Take your cue from the bereaved person as to whether they want to talk more about the person who has died. If you’re not sure, ask them. You might say: 'I appreciate you might not want to talk to me about it but I’m here to listen if you do.' If they want to talk, listen. If you knew the person who has died and it feels right, you could share a nice memory of them.

What shouldn’t I say to someone I know who is bereaved?

Try to avoid talking about your own bereavement, or comparing your bereavement with theirs or trying to 'fix' them. Don’t say, 'I know what you are going through', even if you’re bereaved yourself. Everyone’s experience of bereavement is personal to them and no one can know how it feels for someone else. Don’t say things like 'You’ll get over it', or if their baby or child has died, don’t suggest that they can 'always have another one'. Don’t tell them how they should feel, or say things like 'stay strong' or 'be brave' or use cliches like 'time is a great healer', or 'they are in a better place now'. Avoid trying to minimise their loss by using expressions starting with 'At least…' such as, 'At least he didn’t suffer,' or 'At least you were with her when she died', which you might think sound comforting but are not always helpful when someone is grieving.

Don’t say 'I know what you’re going through', because you don't.

Rio, parent of bereaved children

What should I do if I feel upset?

If you find yourself getting upset speaking to a bereaved friend, that’s OK. You don’t need to feel embarrassed, and your friend may appreciate that you care. Equally, it’s OK to sit silently with someone, if you both feel comfortable with this.

What help can I offer to someone I know who is bereaved?

Rather than asking, 'Is there anything I can do?', which can feel quite vague and open-ended to someone who is grieving, it can be helpful to offer something specific. Some people appreciate being offered practical support like having a meal prepared for them, looking after their children or pets for a while, or doing some shopping. You might say something like: 'I’m going to the supermarket this afternoon – can I pick anything up for you?'. If you can’t think of something specific, then it’s best to just ask them what would be helpful to them.

Sometimes you can offer powerful emotional support simply by listening, and being company for them, maybe by suggesting meeting for a coffee or going for a walk if these are possible. Stay connected in the weeks and months ahead, even if it’s just by making a phone call, sending a text message or a card saying you’re thinking of them, without any expectation of a reply. Families we support tell us this can be particularly helpful after the initial flurry of support has diminished.

Don’t act on the person’s behalf without consulting them, or suggest things they should be doing. You might think it would help them to to clear out a person’s clothes or redecorate a bedroom or nursery, but it is crucial that these kinds of decisions are made when the person who is grieving feels 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 or to do what you assume you would need or want. If they ask you to help, that is different, and being alongside them while they make difficult decisions can be very helpful indeed.

A lot of the unhelpful support we had came from well-intentioned people who were offering things that they assumed they would have wanted.

Katherine, parent of a bereaved child

Some people might feel comfortable offering a hug, if that feels appropriate for you and the person who is bereaved, or just offering to sit quietly with them can be comforting. Kindness and patience go a long way - even if it sometimes feels that you can’t say or do anything to help, especially in the early days. Just being with them, or keeping in contact, without being intrusive or having expectations in return, can help more than you might know.

If you have a friend going through it, just be there. You don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t have to say something to make them feel better, just let them be.

Friend of a bereaved parent

I’d like to send a sympathy card. What should I write?

What you write in your card is individual to you and will naturally be influenced by your relationship with the bereaved person and the person who has died. Whatever the situation, you don’t need to write something formal or flowery and don’t be afraid to mention the name of the person who has died. You might write: 'I’m so sorry about {insert name/ relationship of person who has died}. I’m thinking of you at this difficult time'.

If it feels right, share any memories you might have of the person, especially if they are things that will make the bereaved person feel proud or remind them of a happy time. Read a blogpost by our Patron and bereaved parent Mary Berry on how receiving a letter can be really helpful to someone who has been bereaved.

It is a real help when there has been a bereavement in a family to write a letter to them. Say how concerned and sorry you are, and what a sad time you know they are having, then make it relaxed and friendly. If you have a memory of their child that they may be able to cherish, or will perhaps make the person feel proud, write it in detailed heartfelt explanation.

Mary, whose son died

You might like to add an offer of practical support to your letter or card, if you’re able to. It is helpful to make this as specific as possible, for instance offering to organise some practical assistance. Sometimes a bereaved person isn’t ready to accept help, but it can be supportive to offer it and perhaps add your phone number to your letter or card and say that they can call when the time feels right.

Don’t expect a reply or be upset if they don’t take you up on your offer; being bereaved can be overwhelming. Just keep in touch from time to time and ask them what they would find helpful without making them feel under any pressure to respond.

The anniversary of the death, birthdays and other special days can be very difficult when you’re bereaved. 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 can put you in touch with your 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.

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.