Practical Ways to Help a Grieving Family

{I’m not an expert on funeral/grief etiquette, but I have gone through personal loss. While grief is different for everyone, and there’s not a comprehensive, copy and paste list of suggestions that will apply perfectly to every situation, my aim is to offer a few general suggestions that will probably work in most cases. Thank you to my friends that have contributed their experiences to this post. If you have other suggestions from your experience, please comment below. Your insight matters.}

When someone you know and love experiences loss, it’s not always clear how to support them in their grief. In fact, they may not know how they need to be supported either. Grief and loss are deep waters that feel overwhelming. The waters are tricky to navigate. But it’s critical to put your hands to the helm because your love and support is needed now more than ever.

Commonly, people are afraid of doing the wrong thing or saying something stupid, so they end up doing nothing at all. Don’t be that person. Do something!

But first, let me hit pause briefly before I get into the practical advice. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: Your goal is not to take away their sadness. Your goal is to enter into it.

Proverbs 25:20 says, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” Don’t try to cheer them up. It only adds to the pain. Instead, be compassionate. Literally, suffer with them.

And now…

Here are 3 practical ways to help a grieving family:

1. Be present.
This almost seems too obvious, but your presence is the most important piece of the entire equation. Grief is lonely and dark at times. Knowing that people are there with you in the pit makes it more bearable. Let me spell it out even more:

Go to the funeral.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Whether you are an acquaintance or a best friend, do whatever you can to show up at the viewing/funeral services. Find a sitter. Buy a plane ticket. Rearrange your schedule. You will never regret going. But you may regret not going. Funerals often make people uncomfortable because it’s hard to face death (especially depending on the cause of death). But step into their shoes for a moment and imagine how they feel. Don’t put your personal discomfort over the great pain of their loss. When you go, you don’t even have to say anything (although you certainly can say something). A hug or handshake or a simple “I’m so sorry for your loss” can be enough. Your. Presence. Matters.

I remember standing on the stage at Evelyn’s funeral, looking out into a room full of people that we know and love. Roughly 99% of those in attendance had never met our daughter. I don’t remember seeing specific faces. But I remember that people were there. A lot of people. Some drove 13 hours one way. Some spent ridiculous amounts of money on a plane ticket. Others came from just down the street. But they all showed up. And it mattered.

Send a gift/memorial.
Understandably, there are various reasons that people can’t attend a funeral, no matter how hard they try to make it work. If you can’t be there in person, there are other ways you can express a tangible gesture of sympathy in place of your physical presence. (You can also do these things in addition to attending the funeral services.)
– Send a card
– Send flowers
– Send money to the family directly or to a memorial (this is generally specified in the obituary). The amount does not matter. I promise.
– Think creatively about a memorial gift:

  • Buy a beautiful piece of personalized jewelry. (I love this site because you can request one-of-a-kind designs or search from existing pieces. Though I know this particular designer won’t be everyone’s taste, it may inspire another idea. You could also Google “Memorial Jewelry” and see what pops up.)
  • Buy a star (yes, a real star in the sky) in honor of their loved one.
  • Picture frames, decorations like a Willow Tree angel, etc.
  • A stuffed animal made from clothing of the loved one. (Google “Memory Bear” and you’ll get a lot of options.) You could also have pillows or a quilt made from their clothing.
  • Christmas ornaments. (We received several of these since Evelyn died two days before Christmas.)
  • A tree or bush that the family can plant on their property or another special location.

In all honesty, the gifts that we received in memory of Evelyn weren’t all my particular “taste”. But that’s not the point. It’s less about the gift and more about the heart behind it. People remembered her. And they expressed their remembrance. We kept every single one.

2. Say something.
Knowing what to say is quite possibly the hardest thing to discern. But take heart because you don’t need to speak nearly as much as you need to listen.

Keep Talking
Visit. Text. Call. Email. Let them talk about deep heart issues. About everyday life. About the person who died. Just keep talking. It hurts far more to think that the loved one is forgotten than to be reminded of them. One of my dear friends regularly asks me, “How’s your heart?” It’s a simple question that gives me the freedom to share whatever I need to share at the time.

Personally, I think about Evelyn all the time. And her memory constantly surfaces throughout the day. If I talked about her every time I thought about her, well… I fear that I’d be annoying. So when someone asks, when someone invites me to share, it allows me the opportunity to talk about what’s always on my mind anyway.

Remember With Them
There are a handful of people in my life who send me a text on the 3rd and 23rd of each month. Evelyn was born on Dec 3rd and died on Dec 23rd. Those dates have new meaning and deep emotion attached to them. When others let me know that they remember her too, it comforts my heart. My mom sent roses on the 3rd of each month – one rose for every month older that Evelyn would have been. I cried every time. But I put the roses in a vase and set them in a prominent place in the house. Because it touched my heart that someone else remembered her.

If there are certain dates that might have significance to the grieving family, let them know that you are thinking of them when those times approach. Write it on your calendar. Put a reminder in your phone. Remembering matters.

3. Just do something.
Perhaps the least helpful thing you can say to a grieving family is “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” It’s merely a passive way of offering help, even though it certainly comes from a place of good intentions. When a person is in crisis, they will most likely not come to you asking for help. Instead, try asking these proactive questions. (Keep in mind, these depend on your level of relationship with the person.)

  • Offer to watch their kids.
    “May I watch your kids one night this week? I’m free on Tuesday and Friday. Are those days good for you? If not, what other night would work?”
  • Bring them meals. (If you can’t prepare a home cooked meal, consider sending a gift card to a restaurant. A place that does delivery or carry out may be a great option.)
    “I’d love to bring you a meal. Is Monday a good time?”
    “May I set up a Meal Schedule for your family? When is a good time to start?”
  • Offer to clean their house.
    “Suzy and I would like to help with household duties. We can come over any evening this week. Would that be helpful to you right now?”

It Takes a Village
In the same way that “it takes a village” to raise a family, it also takes a village to grieve the death of a loved one. If you happen to be a part of someone’s proverbial village, take your role to heart and be there to support them in their loss – days, weeks, months and years beyond. After all, one day each of us will be standing in their shoes as we face the death of someone we love. Let’s be there for each other.


11 thoughts on “Practical Ways to Help a Grieving Family

  1. This is excellent! I still remember the people who raked leaves, did laundry, watched the kids, etc. I remember my college friends who showed up for the funeral when I never would have expected them to be there. I remember those who still send a card for my wedding anniversary every year. Every little thing matters…especially the little things.


  2. Your words lift up my heart. Knowing we are grieving together helps me feel not so alone. These words echo exactly how I am feeling. Especially the “let me know how I can help” part…they are empty words unless someone actually offers help.

    God bless you, sweet, sweet Sarah. Thank you for your blog.


  3. This is a beautiful blog Sarah. You are so courageous and I admire you so much! When Joe was born a dear friend would visit and say, “please let me know if what I’m saying hurts”. Its different when you have a child with a disability but its similar because of the unknowns. The point is, she was there.
    I love you honey,
    Aunt Coleen


  4. You have such an amazing way of expressing your thoughts and opinions. You blow my mind. God has blessed you more than you understand. Seeing you as an on looker is like watching a work of art, seriously. When is your first book coming out? I love you sis.


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