Hands holding

—Jennifer T., University of North Dakota

Several years ago, I was working on a project that involved hearing from teens who had recently experienced the death of a parent. I’d never met them before, but my job was to ask them about their lives now that their parent was gone. I hadn’t dealt with grief myself, and I was extremely nervous. At one point, a participant started crying uncontrollably. Although I expected tears, I felt so helpless. I passed him tissues and gave him the space to say whatever was on his mind. Once he was done, there was a group hug where he smiled and thanked us for being there.

That experience taught me that supporting someone who’s grieving can be a challenging process. It can feel uncomfortable when you don’t know how to respond to emotions that you may not have experienced. It may seem like there are no words that would help. But—if you push through how awkward it feels, your loved one will be better off because you were there for them. They’ll appreciate what it took for you to be by their side at such a difficult time. So what can you do?

  • Ask how to help—or just do it. Either ask your friend what you can do that will help them or, if you’re comfortable enough, anticipate what they’d need and go for it. They might not be thinking clearly enough to tell you. For example, you can pick dinner up for them, do a load of their laundry, or clean their apartment.
  • Don’t avoid bringing up the death. You may worry that acknowledging the death will make them feel worse, but it likely won’t. They are already thinking about the loss all the time, and it can be helpful when others acknowledge it. It’s OK to ask how they’re coping—just allow them to lead the conversation or shut it down if they don’t feel like talking about it.
  • Plan fun activities. After some time, try to introduce some fun things they can do. Take them on a walk in the park or out to dinner or a movie to help get their mind off the sadness.
  • Be wary of the calendar. For holidays and significant dates, remember that it may be a sensitive time for them. Take note of important days, such as the loved one’s birthday, anniversary of their death, and big holidays—and make sure to reach out to your friend on those days to let them know you’re thinking about them.
  • Lend an ear. If they want to talk, let them do so. Try to actively listen for as long as they need you to.
  • Respect their alone time. If your friend asks for time alone, respect their wishes and provide them that space.

Two people sitting on the beach

It might feel uneasy hearing about death, but remember, your friend is going through one of life’s greatest challenges—experiencing grief. Your discomfort is temporary, whereas their loss is forever. So be there for them.

If it feels like your friend may need additional help managing their grief, encourage them to speak with a counselor at school or in their community.

Whatever you do, know that the best way to help a friend handle the death of a loved one is to let them know there are still loved ones around who care for them.