1. Never avoid someone who has been bereaved. It’s confusing and hurtful. Texts, emails and letters are all acceptable – it’s the contact that matters. Grief can make you feel scared and alone. Saying “I’m sorry” is enough if you can’t think of anything else. But if you have any memories of the person who has died they will be most welcome as, once someone has gone, there are no new memories unless someone shares theirs with you. Even if you have written or texted, always say something again when you actually see the person.
2. Similar bereavement stories can be really helpful; don’t be afraid to share them if you, too, have experienced such a loss. In the early days of grief, it’s important to know that it’s survivable, that you will laugh again, that all happiness has not gone from your life – someone who has been there and done that can be a lifeline.
3. Never compare the loss of a significant loved one to the loss of a pet. And never tell someone how they’re feeling, because grief is incredibly individual.
4. Don’t stop someone crying. Even saying “don’t cry”, meant helpfully, can seem as if you are shutting them down. It’s OK to be silent while someone sobs, just give them a reassuring, gentle touch to let them know you are there. Tears are useful to rid the body of stress hormones. It’s also OK if someone doesn’t cry – everyone processes grief differently.
5. Grief lasts way beyond the delivery of the news. Saying you’re sorry, and then never mentioning the death again is not a good idea, unless the bereaved person has asked you expressly to do this. Send regular missives just asking how someone is. If you call, regular, shorter phone calls to check in on someone are better than great lengthy ones. Grief can take up most of your brain hard-driveand concentrating can be difficult. If you’re not sure if the person wants to talk about the deceased, saying something like “how are you feeling about [name]?” is a good opener. No one likes to think the dead person is gone for ever, never to be mentioned again.
6. The shock of the first few days and weeks can make it hard to do everyday tasks. Eating can be difficult. If you want to cook for someone, tiny, tasty meals can be really useful rather than massive ones. Opening post and dealing with forms can seem an impossible task even for the most previously capable – ask if you can help with admin.
7. Offer to go with someone to sign the death certificate. It usually has to be a close member of the family who does it, and it needs to be done very soon after the death. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do. Make sure they have all the information needed, because once a death certificate is issued, it cannot be altered. Factor in time for a walk and a talk afterwards.
8. Ask if you can go to the funeral. It can be incredibly comforting to know that there are lots of people to see off a loved one.
9. Don’t make it about religion unless you are sure of the person’s beliefs and, even then, be careful. Saying things such as: “They’re in a better place now,” is rarely helpful. Ditto saying: “They were a good age, though.” It’s always too young to lose someone you love.
10. Don’t be afraid to make the bereaved person laugh. Tell them about your day or “silly things” (once you’ve checked in on them) – the minutiae of other people’s lives can be really comforting and momentarily distracting.
11. Save the flowers for three months after the bereavement, when everyone else has fallen away and it seems everyone has forgotten. The bereaved person will still be grieving. It’s getting back to ordinary life that can hurt the most.
12. You won’t make the grieving person cry by mentioning the dead person unless the tears were there anyway. Don’t let fear hold you back.
13. In the weeks after my father died, I became fixated with surrounding myself with nice smells. Beautiful, luxurious body oils and perfumes became incredibly important. A cocoon, an armour, a bubble? Who knows, but it helped in that moment. Your grieving friend will probably have something similar if you ask.
14. Make a note of landmarks – anniversaries, birthdays, etc. Grief seems more raw on these days and your friend may need extra support.
15. Remind them that bereavement counselling doesn’t have to be taken in the first few months. In fact, many people can’t handle it so soon after a death, but it can be incredibly beneficial even months or years later.
This article first appeared in the Family section of The Guardian on 15 April 2017.