How to Help Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One
In 2013, my mother passed away at the age of 60. She was less than two months into a cancer diagnosis and treatment plan when complications led to blood clotting and a fatal stroke.
We expected the treatment period to be challenging, but we did not anticipate that she wouldn’t survive it. We all gathered around her as she faded and passed, and even after her eyes were closed for good and her voice could no longer speak, her small gestures and hand squeezes told us she heard our final words and I-love-you’s.
What followed was a week full of laughter, tears, and socializing that we retrospectively call “mom week” — when we planned and celebrated a memorial for my mom. I joined my brothers, future wife, sister-in-law, and dad, to gather photos and talk to friends and family. The whole experience helped me immensely, even though I was experiencing profound grief.
Drawing on the strength of so much support, I want to share a few ways I’d recommend walking with someone after they lose a loved one. If you know someone who is grieving, these are some things to keep in mind as you reach out to offer support.
Don’t try to give advice
If you’re like me, you may often have the instinct to try to “fix” people. Sometimes, when a friend comes to me with intense emotions or serious despair, I am tempted to be a fixer — to analyze their situation and devise a step-by-step action plan that leads to a resolution. Most of the time, that’s a fool’s errand. What they really need is a companion — someone to listen, console, and be present. (And despite your intentions, it’s often the only thing you can really offer.)
A good starting point is to abandon any sort of script or desire to have the right words to say. The bumper-sticker, Hallmark-card cliches that may pop into your head might be tempting to offer, but they can come off as cold or impersonal. Losing a loved one brings the complicated questions of life and faith very close. Frequently, lines like “everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel” only complicate and obfuscate the difficult processing. (They also raise unnecessary questions about God’s intentions, but that’s a conversation for theology class.)
Instead, start by simply listening. Authentically ask, “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling?” From there, you may perhaps find a moment in the conversation where you hear something resonating with a prior experience of loss that you’ve had. If it feels right, offer your thoughts vulnerably — not to compare experiences, but to genuinely engage their experience and help them feel less isolated.
For example, an old college professor told us that while the images of our mom’s last days might be fresh and deeply saddening, those difficult memories will recede into proportion with the rest of her life and allow us to gradually gain a more balanced memory of our mom. His authenticity in simply sharing something he realized was a needed kernel of wisdom still helps me in my bits of grief today.
If nothing comes to mind, though, just simply reflecting back what you hear the person saying — literally, re-stating and summarizing what they say (it’s really that simple) — helps them feel heard and understood. That’s such a comfort when someone is grieving — to feel like they’re not alone, that someone else understands and shares their pain. You can help them bear that load.
Actions speak louder than words, anyway
When in doubt, show up. When you learn of memorial arrangements, just go if you can go. Don’t worry about what you’ll do or say or how you’ll handle it — just be there.
Some people prefer to go to wakes, where an open-house style format gives flexibility for when to come and how long to stay. Other people prefer to attend the memorial Mass or service. Whatever you can do will be welcomed and appreciated by those who are grieving.
My mom’s memorial Mass and reception were both swimming with people I never would have imagined seeing. Some of them even came and went without conversing with me. From college dormmates to old high school friends to my mom’s old co-workers to my mom’s goddaughter’s ex-husband — just seeing their faces humbled my heart and underscored the breadth of my mom’s love and our family’s reach. It helped me to see that my mom had an impact on a wide network of people, and seeing those people come together to honor her life was a comfort.
Even if you can’t attend anything, you can still act. Consider writing a letter or sending a card. If you’re unsure how, you might make a donation to your parish to offer a Mass to pray for the soul of the person who has passed away. For us Catholics, there is no better way to pray than the Mass. Usually, the parish will offer a card that you can send to notify the person who is grieving.
Additionally, while flowers are often the default gift following a loss, more and more families are instead requesting donations to charities connected to the legacy of their loved one. Personally, we asked for donations to the American Cancer Society and our parish school’s scholarship fund, since my mom had taught there for decades. We were awed and honored by the generosity.
On a lighter note, don’t be afraid to be practical. My mom’s passing left her husband and three sons as an all-male household. During “mom week,” my Uncle Jeff made a surprise visit to say hello and spend a few minutes with us. What did he bring? Liquor and toilet paper. We appreciated those gifts deeply — they were an opportunity to make a fresh toast and also account for our now being directly responsible for replenishing our toilet paper supply.
Share your stories
An important part of the grieving process is the opportunity to tell stories about the person who has died. It is a natural way those left behind start to make sense of their own stories in the absence of a key figure. Remembering experiences with the deceased and telling them as stories is a comfort — it shows them that their loved one was important to others as well. Stories help us hold on to our memories — they are an important way we carry with us loved ones who have died.
This is very delicate ground, though, so tread lightly. Everyone grieves differently. Some people will not be ready to talk or listen much, so it may be best to hang on to stories for a later time. For my family, we spent most of “mom week” laughing, joking, and telling stories. Pouring over photos and catching up with various friends and family triggered all kinds of memories with a whole range of emotions. These conversations brought deep joy to our hearts, as various people’s contributions celebrated mom’s thoughtfulness, compassion, patience, outreach, goofiness, and so much more.
All this sharing made us laugh and cry in such welcome ways that helped process our emotions and celebrate our mom. For my dad, who is a low-key, gentle man who loved his wife dearly, he would listen appreciatively, and as people sang mom’s praises, silently tell himself, “I know.” For my brothers and me, it was a way to collect and catalog the breadth of mom’s loving reach from her various communities of co-workers and friends and the different pockets and generations of her and our family.
Additionally, you may find out some fun secrets. For example, it turns out my little brother had a little too much to drink one night in college. Mom and dad came to help him without my older brother or me ever finding out, and she swore she’d take that secret to the grave — and indeed she did! (Until my dad and brother let the cat out of the bag.)
Offer your prayers
Not least of all, please offer others your prayers. It may sound trite to tell someone that you’re praying for them, but it doesn’t remain trite if you earnestly follow through on this. Grab a prayer card at the memorial and pray for the person’s soul — put the card in your wallet or next to a mirror to help you remember to pray for them at church, in the morning, or at night. Most memorial cards include a prayer text on them, so you don’t even need to worry about what to say!
I know that I personally could feel consolation and strength in my heart during “mom week” and beyond, both because people promised us their prayers and because I knew they were doing it.