How You Can Help When Someone is Hurting.

Posted on August 20th, 2012

Grieving is a healthy reaction to loss. Our reactions after a significant loss aren't predictable or within our control. They are real responses to real losses, and aren’t something that we can turn off and on at will. Telling someone they should move on is not helpful. It misses the mark by a mile, and it is damaging to relationships because it denies authentic, intense feelings. Even if those words are not spoken, they are heard non-verbally, and can cause dismay.

There are unhelpful and helpful comments. Here are some of them:


1. Oh, don’t feel that way. George would want you to keep a stiff upper lip and move on.
2. Thank God you have another child.
3. You’re young. You can marry again.
4. Well your mother was quite old. She probably had done all she was going to do.
5. At least he didn’t suffer.
6. There, there, you know Alice is in heaven. Be happy she’s with Jesus.
7. Just take that sadness off your face and smile. It’s not the end of the world! Life goes on.
8. You have to admit it was her own fault for smoking so much!
9. Cheer up, it was just a dog after all; not your child!
10. Why make such a fuss over an animal.


1. I’m sorry for your loss.
2. I care.
3. If it’s okay, tell me how it happened.
4. What was it like when you first found out about….
5. How are (husband, wife, loved ones) handling things?
6. How are you doing?
7. Tell me about _____. I'll bet you have a lot of great stories.
8. I know you’re going through a rough time.
9. What has been the most difficult for you?
10. This must be hard on the whole family.
11. How can I help?
12. Tell me about your support system?
13. I’d like to offer to do your grocery shopping for you for awhile if 
     it’s okay with you. (or babysit, mow the lawn—and any number of     
     other things.) Offer only what you can easily master. Don’t
     promise and if you can’t deliver.

Open-ended questions are the most effective in any communication. These are questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes or a no." They encourage conversation and in depth responses. Using how, what, when, tell me about ____ are good ways to start. Avoid the word "why." Why puts people on the defensive and can be off-putting.

In grief we process our feelings. It’s as simple as that. All helpers need to do is listen without denying the pain of the other and without judgment. Being present to the person is more important than any words we might say. My hospice patients taught me just being with someone in their pain is of great comfort.

Grief is neither a disorder nor a healing process; it is a sign of health itself, a whole and natural gesture of love. We must not see grief as a step towards something better. No matter how much we hurt-and it may be the greatest pain in life—grief can be an end in itself, a pure expression of love.. (1)

To grieve well is to value what you have lost. When you value even the feeling of loss, you value life itself, and you begin to live again. (2)

Grief is defined as work for a reason. There are tasks involved; tasks that grievers need to accomplish if they are to find the peace they seek. Psychologist William Worden offers one model for the tasks of grieving. The first one is accepting the reality of the loss. Worden postulates that even if the death is expected, acceptance can be difficult. “The second task involves working through the pain of grief. …Not everyone experiences the same intensity of pain or feels it in the same way, but it is impossible to lose someone you have been deeply attached to without experiencing some level of pain.” …Adjusting to a changed environment  is the third task because the person is missing from life.  The environment Worden talks of is more than just
physical. It is emotional, mental, behavioral and spiritual. And, the fourth tasks is “emotionally relocating the deceased and moving on with life. Accomplishing this task involves the recognition that, although one does not forget or necessarily stop loving the deceased person, there are other people one can love.” (3) (4)

An important thing to keep in mind is that immediately following a death there are many people to support and comfort the bereaved: family, friends, clergy, church members, and neighbors. Six week later everyone has gone back to their own lives and this is when the reality of the loss can be harshest. Take time to make phone calls and check-ins to see how the bereaved are doing. Holidays and anniversaries are also difficult times. At these times when we can reach out and let folks know we haven’t forgotten them or their loss.

As human beings we are vulnerable to random suffering and to death. We can’t avoid these occurrences. And, though as humans, we want to be immortal, we aren't.  Helen Keller once said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” I believe that we each have a part to play in the overcoming of it—making ourselves available to serve others less fortunate than ourselves. Offering companionship and compassion for the dying and bereaved reflects our unity as human beings and as children of God. (5)


1.  Carr, Charles, A.; Clyde M. Nabe; Donna M. Corr. Death & Dying Life & Living. Fourth 
     Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 2003.  (209-211)
2.  SOURCE:  May, 1992. (3)
3.  ibid. Frank.  1991. (41)
4.  Worden, J. William, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental
     Health Practitioner, 3rd ed. New York: Springer, 2002), esp. (27-37).
5   Corr, Charles, A.; Clyde M. Nabe; Donna M. Corr. Death & Dying  Life & Living. Fourth
     Edition. Boston: McGraw0Hill 2003. (283).

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