Use caution if your first inclination is to use words of optimism, as mourners, especially at the beginning, are not in a place to hear this, says Litsa Williams and Eleanor Haley, the mental health professionals behind the blog "What's Your Grief?" "If you find yourself wanting to start a sentence with 'at least' or 'you can always,' you should probably think twice," they wrote in an email interview. Bringing up the "in a better place" logic, reminding your friend that he or she can remarry or reflecting on what a long life so-and-so lived – these sentiments are "likely well-intended, but only minimize the gravity of the loss," Williams and Haley say.
Offer your help. While this is likely the best way to be present for the bereaved, it's important to be specific with your offers. Friends probably mean well when asking, "Is there anything I can do to help?" and offering, "If you need anything, call me," but these questions and phrases are awfully vague, Neimeyer says. Plus, they "require that the mourner, when he or she is most immobilized, to take initiative."
Instead, Kenneth Doka, Hospice Foundation of America's senior consultant, suggests you "find what specific needs need to be met and meet them." Offer tangible tasks you can manage for the bereaved, like say, driving him or her to the cemetery, picking up the kids from school that week or providing dinner on Thursday, Doka suggests.
An important distinction: Offer your help, but don't force it. If the bereaved wants to spend time alone, respect that wish. He may be fielding back-to-back-to-back phone calls and visitors at the exact time he's trying to make sense of a world that's likely turned upside down. Let him take a breather and remember that everyone grieves differently.
Say the deceased's name. It can sometimes seem that, while mourning, the deceased person's name becomes almost unspeakable. But continually avoiding the person's name only further erases him or her from our lives. "Use the name of the deceased," Tousley says. "This helps recall the person's presence and confirms that the person has not, and will not, be forgotten."
So, instead of, "I'm so sorry for your loss," say: "I'm so sorry for your loss of Jack."
Check in weeks and months later. "The long term is when being there for a friend or family member is especially important," Williams and Haley say. "Immediately following a loss, people are surrounded by support. A few months later, people often feel like everyone has moved on." Check in regularly, especially on birthdays and anniversaries. Neimeyer suggests marking a reminder on the calendar to call the bereaved a month after the loss.
Share memories. If you knew the deceased, share photos and stories about him or her in person, or in a note or email. ("I remember when Jack was about 10 years old and …") If you didn't know the person who died, ask to hear a story about him while you're being present and sharing lunch with the bereaved.
"These activities signal that we understand he's still emotionally part of your life," says Neimeyer, and that "his stories still deserve to be circulated."