People love to avoid having conversations about grief.
It’s easy to say “I’m so sorry for your loss!” a few days, weeks, or months after someone dies. But eventually, giving support can get harder when we don’t know what to say, when to say it, or how to say it.
If you’re struggling to start a conversation with someone who is grieving, know that you’re not alone. Lots of people feel like it gets harder and harder to communicate with a grieving friend after those initial months following a loss. Some feel like it can be “weird” or “rude” or “creepy” to reach out on days that aren’t an anniversary or holiday. And others are just scared they’re going to hurt someone they love if they approach things in the wrong way.
To help you feel better equipped when it comes to reaching out, below is a guide for having conversations with a friend or family member who is grieving. Whether you jump right into the grief talk or just want to send along a few emojis, here are some tips and considerations for how to go about striking up a convo from afar.
Why Grieving in isolation is hard
There are a few reasons why grieving in isolation can be even harder than in our normal life. When our lives are turned upside down, our routines disappear and our brains are working harder to make even tiny decisions.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are caring for your grieving friend. They could inspire you to come up with a plan that relieves these specific stressors, or just give you new perspective on how grief can be compounded by other circumstances.
Being stuck in a house full of memories: Some people are grieving surrounded by their dead loved one’s things. They could be in lockdown in a childhood home, unable to arrange a planned estate sale, or unable to sell a family house.
Being isolated from the people that help them manage their grief: This could include family, friends, community centers, grief groups, and colleagues.
Inability to access support services: Support services could include therapy (even if their therapist does digital appointments, losing a job or healthcare can mean limited access); healthcare practitioners, and grief groups.
Being bored as hell: Losing a job, losing social activity, or losing routine can mean that the time you’d normally spend managing your grief is now spent alone with really painful memories, stress, or sadness.
Isolation can trigger emotional, physical, and mental issues: Your friend might be struggling with things that existed in their life before and that are being exacerbated by being alone. This could include alcoholism, drug use, or abuse.
Before you start a conversation
There are a few things you should consider before you start texting someone about their dead mom every day, or before you start harassing your parents by phone to talk about why they should or shouldn’t be in grief therapy.
This is about them, not you.
Know your audience.
Think about what you have time for.
Be prepared for any kind of answer.
Know that “Thanks for checking in, I’m fine!” is ok, too.
Unless you’re a counselor, remember you’re not a counselor.
Don’t freak out if they don’t answer right away.
If you offend them, just apologize.
How to start a conversation with a grieving friend
Below are a few prompts to help you get going over text, Instagram, email, video chat, or the phone. Because the hardest thing many of us face is figuring out where to start. Choose your own adventure and give yourself a mini pat on the back for making the effort.
A simple check in on them
Seriously, just send them a short note - a text, an email, an Instagram message, or a little card. You don’t have to write a novel, know the exact right thing to say, or have a full-blown FaceTime.
- “Hey 👋” Okay, that one is pretty simple. But sometimes simple is all you need. If you have no idea what to say but haven’t chatted in a while, just start with a nudge and see where things go.
- “Uuuugh, I’m really feeling [insert something honest here]. How have you been holding up?” Offering a little bit of vulnerability can go a long way in making someone feel like you’re a safe space to talk about their grief. And if you aren’t all sunbeams and butterflies, they might feel a little less alone in their hardship.
- “How are you feeling about [insert something specific here] today?” Open-ended questions like “how are you feeling” can be SO hard to answer when you’re grieving. So consider asking them something related to how they’re feeling emotionally or physically - something they can clearly describe and pinpoint, without having to give you a response like, “Well pretty awful in a million ways but not really sure why!”
Talk to them about stuff that’s not related to their loss
To be honest, talking to friends all day, every day can be very therapeutic. But does that mean you have to talk about loss and grief and mental health 24/7? No. Have the fun chats, shoot the shit, and laugh at the memes. Distractions can be healthy and welcomed by a grieving person.
- “OMG I was just thinking about when I watched…” a movie? A weird youtube video? A funny TikTok? A bird fly past your window? Sometimes “hi” or “wassup” isn’t enough to strike up a meaningful conversation. So coming out the gate with something that shows you’re engaged, enthused, and excited by a memory can be useful for getting a fun conversation started.
- “I was [insert some specific activity] and it made me think of…” that time you all cooked a recipe together. Or a funny college memory that you’ll both remember. Or an activity you both used to do with your dead loved one. Telling them that you’re thinking of them without bringing up their loss is okay.
- “Do you think aliens exist? Because I’m legit feeling like anything is possible these days.” MAKE JOKES! Please make jokes. Being alone with our grief can be depressing as hell and someone willing to make you laugh can be the highlight of someone’s year.
Talk to them about their loss
It can be really nice when you know that someone is out there willing to listen. Those passing conversations at a family dinner or over late-night drinks aren’t happening as frequently. So it can be lovely to have someone just bring it up when you need to talk.
- “I know we haven’t talked since the funeral, but...” Acknowledging that you’re aware you haven’t talked in a while is okay. You don’t always have to be afraid of bringing up loss.
- “Just checking in since the last time we talked about [insert something grief-related you’ve already talked to them about].” If you have talked to them before but want to keep tabs, check in about something specific you’ve already covered. It shows you listened and gives them a chance to provide an update not just a general reflection on their feels.
Talk to them about memories
I love it when people bring up my dead mom. And I am not joking here. There are memories that I’ve forgotten about. There are things only my aunt or dad can tell me. And sometimes it’s nice to think about the funny or heartwarming things that happened in life before my loss. If you’re a family member or really close friend, there are memories that only your small circle might have, so keeping those alive can be a great way to connect in a way that no one else can.
- “Can you remind me…” of a recipe, book title, or movie your person loved? The person’s middle name if you’ve forgotten it? Their birthday if you don’t know the date? It’s okay to forget things - we all have dates, names, and memories slip our minds when we’re grieving. Asking keeps you from racking your brain and also gives them a chance to share something special with you.
- “Do you remember…” the way the person used to laugh? Or the recipe for that bangin’ cocktail they used to make every summer at the lake? Or the song they played at their wedding?
- “I was just thinking about…” that time your dead loved one did that wild thing? That time you were all hanging out before they died? Or the recipe they cooked every Christmas that you wish you could have?
Have conversations while doing an activity
Walk and talks don’t just have to be for the office. If you feel like calling someone while just sitting on your couch (endless time, no ending to the call in sight) then talk to them while you’re doing an activity that has an end-time. Your friend grieving doesn’t mean that your social anxiety or commitments disappear, so be realistic about what you have the capacity for and find ways to talk around those.
- “Do you want to hang while I cook?” Have the phone on speaker while you cook your dinner, but end the convo (if you feel like it) when it’s time to sit down and eat.
- “Do you want to hang while you fall asleep?” Sleep can be hard to come by when we’re grieving. If your friend needs company late at night when they’re struggling with sleep, go all When Harry Met Sally on them and just chill from your respective beds.
Just send a pic
A picture says a thousand words… and be easier to send than a well-crafted thought.
- Send a meme that you know will make them laugh. Grief-related or not, a good meme can go a long way on a bad day. I love it when people send me something that doesn’t require a response but lets me know they’re thinking of me.
- Send a picture that you found while cleaning out old drawers or closets or yearbooks. If you’re close with this person, you might be better equipped to care for them than anyone, just because you’ve got past memories, trinkets, and tangible things that have built your relationship.
- Here are a few Instagram accounts with sometimes funny, sometimes real, sometimes compassionate, and always beautiful imagery that could brighten your friend’s day, make them feel less alone, and even give them a new, useful account to follow while they’re grieving.
Professional resources for your grieving friend
If you find yourself in a situation where you think your friend needs more support than you can offer, don’t hesitate to reach out to professional services for advice. Or send them information about a service that would be helpful.
Crisis Text Line: Free, 24/7 support via SMS. Text 741741 to be connected to a trained Crisis Counselor.
Grief Coach. Personalized text messages that help you stay connected and supported as you grieve. Even from a distance.
Better Help: Get connected with an online therapist.
The Mighty: Engage in a community based on shared experiences.
Shine: An app and community for people dealing with stress and anxiety.
Headspace: Guided meditations
Calm: For better sleep
Alica Forneret is a writer and facilitator creating spaces for people to explore their grief. She is fiercely committed to making sure that we have more conversations about grief, death, and dying - whether that’s at home, at work, or with strangers on the bus. Alica is a member of the BC Women's Health Foundation’s Young Women's Council, an Associate board member of Our House Grief Center, and hosts Dead Moms Club events in Canada and the US.