Understanding the Grief of a Family Member or Friend



We are to have “compassion one to another.” As a family member or friend to someone who is grieving, you have an admirable selfless desire to comfort and help them in their time of need. As you attempt to do that, remember that you also have inward motivations to remove personal worry and the obligation you feel to deal with their issues and sadness. Guaranteed, you will tire of their grief long before they are through it.  If you are a true friend, you will need to practice patience and understanding if you want to aid them instead of causing additional pain.

There is as not just one set of stages, but infinite paths people follow. The existential issue of mortality along with the other variables, i.e., length of relationship, love-quality, religious background, social supports, etc. lead to highly individualized responses. This has important implications for friends and family of the bereaved. Assumptions about what your friend is going through are dangerous because they can disqualify that person’s reality. Since each person’s experience is unique and since it constantly changes over time, the best option for people who want to help is to just to listen – bear witness to what your friend is going through. Let him know that you care, that you want to understand better, that you are willing to spend time – this is how to best support a grieving person. – Anderson

Family and Friends meaning well generally want to give advice in order to fix the person or the problem, but the root of the problem cannot be fixed. The loss of a loved one is a life long trial. For some this loss  becomes “an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively. (Holland) In these cases, it is important to encourage your family member or friend to seek professional help and then to provide extra needed support.

Fortunately, in most cases, people are able to cope with the help of a support system of family and friends.  Knowing how to help becomes critical if you are one of those people providing that support.

It is important to understand that the loss of a loved one is not something that they will ‘get over’ some day.  The burden will lesson with time, but it can resurface as well.  Being there for them well past the first year is the mark of a true friend.  I have been lucky enough to have many of those who have patiently listened to me and remembered me over the last several years; they have been true angels in my life.

Do not make the mistake of comparing your past or present experience with grief to their present grief at hand.  The truth is, unless you have personally suffered the same kind of loss in very similar circumstances, you do not understand.  Even among my friends who are widows, we readily acknowledge that our circumstances and grief are unique. Comparing and judging leads to additional hurt.  Acknowledge that you know you don’t understand, but that you are will to be there for them.  Allow them to deal with their grief on their time table and not yours.

As a person who is grieving, I know that I am not always in control or prepared for triggers that set off my grief.  As a widow said,

“Grief chooses you, you don’t choose it. We’re doing the best we can to play the hand we’ve been dealt. You can’t make grief go away. It’s just there trying to drag you down.”

Regardless of the surrounding circumstances, when grief comes we have to choose to face it or suppress it. Be observant and aware of times that may be hard for your friend or family member. Be especially sensitive on holidays and other special occasions that are generally joyful for everyone else. People who are grieving, especially in the later phases learn to suppress those emotions in front of others.  It can be a very lonely place to pretend everything is okay when you are silently crying inside.  In social gatherings perceptive friends have often offered me a quiet pat and a knowing smile without saying a word.  That in and of itself has helped strengthen me and make me feel less alone.

People who are grieving have the need to share, to reminisce, and to reflect about their loved one.  They enjoy hearing what people miss and admire about them, but they also a need time to contemplate, to relax, and to “be still” even while in the company of friends. Let them take the lead.

Sometimes when I am emotionally on the edge, I do not want to talk about Scott of my feelings.  Other times, I don’t want him to be forgotten, or I am hurting too bad to suppress emotions any longer.  I know it’s hard for others to perceive what I am thinking and feeling.

When a grieving person wants to talk, don’t respond in ways that show you are uncomfortable. I have often felt that people do not want to hear about the depths of my emotions.  I see that is makes them uncomfortable, sad and helpless.  I feel the need to comfort and reassure them that I am okay. One of the reasons I do not share is because I don’t want to drag them in.  Grieving loved ones are more likely to share if you have responded in the past in a positive,caring and compassionate way.

Through the process of patiently helping and assisting there are times that we simply have to trust in God to help them work it out. If they have a belief in God, encourage them to hold on in His love.

“Though [they] may feel “like a broken vessel,” as the Psalmist says,  we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind.” (Holland)


Phases of grief in dealing with the Loss of a loved one

One of the earmarks of bereavement is feeling lost. Being able to differentiate the various feelings, circumstances, and phases people are going through can help them navigate through the murky fog to see the light. Being able to identify the hidden issues and emotional signposts can serve as beacons in the storm. – Anderson

When we talk about grief phases people most often refer to the phases described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Unfortunately, these were developed to describe grief pertaining to the process of dieing.  Most people who have experiences the death of a loved one find that these phases do not correlate.  Anderson identifies five new stages that appear to be relatively universal to the process:

  1. Shock and numbing
  2. Withdrawal
  3. Identity crisis
  4. Reorganizing
  5. Lifting

These phases are not necessarily sequential and isolated.  Grief phases are more of a cyclical or ‘flowing process;’ nevertheless, everyone experiences them differently.

“In the early phases my group mates and I cycled through these phases so rapidly, they were nearly simultaneous. We swirled through them within an hour, a day, a week, a year – cycles within cycles – until the hurricane finally weakened and we began to emerge out the end of the funnel in a place of greater peace, acceptance, and renewal.” – Anderson

More fully understanding this process can help you understand, support and aid your grieving friend or family member in ways that will truly enhance their life and will improve your relationship with them.

To learn more about Grief Phases visit the post The Stages of Grief



“Grieving a Death.” Anderson, Susan. Date last modified <2006>. Available at: http://www.abandonment.net/articles. Accessed <03/25/2015>.

Holland, Jeffery R, “Like a Broken Vessel.” Oct 2013

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