How to Companion Someone who is Grieving

Birth, life, death….the 3 inevitable stages of life and yet the dying part is kept in the shadows of our collective experience. While we know it’s coming, we are so afraid of dying – our own death and of loved ones. So many people don’t know what to do when someone they know loses someone. We are not sure what to do as we may be afraid that thinking about their beloved makes them sad. I can assure you, they are already sad – being alone in it is much worse.

Where are the casseroles that everyone gets in movies?

I think people are hoping that i have moved on and don’t need to check in. For the most part, i am moving on because i have to. But that doesn’t mean i don’t want people to ask me how i am. I can be okay and still sad. And my sadness is proportional to the new grief i am experiencing.

I’ve also noticed that people assume that since time has given space to the newness of the loss that they don’t have to ask me how i am. I still only just lost my mom. It’s still the only news that is consuming me. It doesn’t matter that i am a therapist and trained to support others with their grief. I am a human who has experiencing a significant, life-changing loss. I need care as well. We all do.

When i reflect on these last 3 months, i have noticed both what i needed and what i didn’t get. I can’t help but keep track of what disappointed me. I think that’s the learner in me, the human experience researcher. The biggest learning is that i want people to acknowledge the loss of my mom. The biggest hurt is when people (who definitely know) and have not said anything to me in person. Not saying anything hurts way more than just saying “how are you doing these days.”

Trust me on this one.

I first learned of the terms ‘companion’ and ‘holding space’ from Amy Wright Glenn, who credits Alan Wolfelt for this. I love how these terms really do capture what is needed when someone is grieving. With that in mind, here are some of my take-aways:


1) Sit with Them as They Grieve
We are not meant to carry these feelings alone. We need to know that someone is holding us. Don’t be hesitant to reach out. People who are grieving don’t always want to do it alone. In fact, as grief is based on the loss of a relationship, it is relationships that help heal. This is what it means to ‘hold space’ and companion someone.

Ask them stories about their loved one; tell them stories about your own experience (of loss, or if you knew the person); help titrate the hard feelings with stories about everyday life. Be there with them as they cry.

There is no right way to grieve. Don’t assume they’re doing okay just because time has moved on or that they are presenting as okay. There can be a cognitive dissonance when it comes to being okay. Don’t ask “how are you,“ try instead with saying “I was thinking of you.”

Being able to laugh is as important as being able to cry.

Being able to talk about it is as important as taking a break from thinking about it.

Don’t try to keep joys apart from tragedy or pain. Let them co-exist and forge ahead with feelings of joy and heartache – choose the beauty over the rain. Their sadness is a testament that what they are grieving is important to them. This may be hard for you to relate to if you haven’t experienced this type of loss. Instead think of your own meaningful relationships, or the one that they have lost. This is a reflection of what was meaningful and special to them and it is not longer.

“The way i see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening.” William to Rebecca, This is Us

2) Hug and Hold Them
Hugs are a catalyst of helping people to release the feelings of sadness. They also help grievers feel less alone. They truly help people feel comforted.

Other things that are similar to hugs are flowers, books, playlists, ready-made food, cards, donations in their name, and send texts to check in.

Social support should include rest and comfort, a break from the grief so that we can titrate feelings.

“We are all just carrying each other home” Ram Das
Not saying anything at, especially the first time you see them after the loss, is definitely the WRONG thing to do

3) Companion Them
While the concepts of companioning someone and holding space for them are interconnected, the subtle shift is in the action. When we hold space, that means we are staying with them in their moment of sorrow; when we are companioning them, we are on the journey with them to heal and are more active in the path.

Martín Prechtel writes poignantly on grief work in his book from The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise:

“Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is, in itself, the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”
Invite them to events and activities. Don’t take it personally if they say no. Keep inviting and offering. Help them to re-enter world. Give them time and help by reminding what they love to do and can do now.

Remember their loved one’s name and when they died. Dates like this really matter.

In my last journal article, i shared this: “we are not meant to grieve alone. We are grieving the loss of someone we loved. We grieve what matters so need community to companion us as community is what helps us heal.”

4) Check in Often
Don’t just check in once, do it repeatedly; Put together a meal train and have a team so you can take turns.

A lot of us may assume that there’s someone else who’s doing this for the person who’s grieving. In our society right now, chances are there isn’t that person or village. Don’t assume others are doing it already – assume that it’s helpful to reach out. Just show up.

5) Take Time to Learn about Death
Because it is an inevitable part of life, we need to better prepare for its end. Think about what you would need, when you are faced with a loss. One of the things that has touched me the most is when friends and acquaintances alike have reached out with a resource that helped them in their grief. If you are looking for helpful books and resources, here are a few:

*Being Here, Human; a program for grief literacy
*Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman
*Julia Samuel, Grief Works
*David Kessler Finding Meaning: The 6th Stage of Grief
*It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay – the title says it all!
Orphan Wisdom
Pema Chodron’s words have been an ever-present companion
*Amy Wright Glenn’s book Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go as well as her work at The Institute of the Study of Birth Breath Death
*Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser

Holding Space for Your Loss

Today is October 15. Besides being a windy, cool Fall day here in Toronto, it also marks a global day of remembrance for those families that have lost babies either during pregnancy or as a young infant. I’m sitting at home watching the evening sky come into view. After a day of rain, the hues outside are a very fitting shade of pink, blue and purple – the chosen colours of today.

I am one of those 1 in 4. And before i started this work, i didn’t share the info so openly. Now, it’s a part of life both as a quiet identity and one that knows i need not feel shame. In my own journey as someone who has lost a baby by miscarriage, and as a therapist now supporting families and women with their own loss, this past year is a very meaningful one for my own growth and healing. It seems fitting, then that i wanted to share with you some helpful ways we can hold space for others and companion them after experiencing a loss like this.

While i have found ways to heal from my own miscarriage, i still take time to acknowledge this loss. One thing that i do still is to keep this Desert Rose crystal near my bed. As my children who are alive Earthside sleep down the hall from me, this beautiful creation from nature is close to my bed. Desert Rose helps to support grief especially related to miscarriage. It is very grounding and i love how fragile and strong it is at the same time.

I took a course this past year that really confirmed for me what ‘holding space’ means. Amy Wright Glenn leads a very healing and comprehensive course that is open to anyone to participate in. She talks about how holding space means to deliberately check in with your friend, to not shy away from being direct and asking they are doing. Those of us that have lost do want you to ask about how we are coping with this loss, and to acknowledge our grief. This is a key tool as so many of us are afraid to go down that road, like asking may bring up feelings for the person experiencing grief that we ourselves are not sure how to support. It’s a good reminder that to truly companion someone, we may need to be a bit uncomfortable and step outside our small talk zone. it’s not about our comfort but rather their pain.

There are some amazing ways to hold space and heal, and still find a way to keep the baby we lost close to us. Molly Bears is a great example of this: you can order a teddy bear that is the exact same weight as your baby. To be able to feel and hold all over again, to be able to connect with this feeling in your body can be really healing and gratifying. You can plant a tree or garden, or have a special place in your home that your baby sits at. I know some women who have gotten a commemorative tattoo or beautiful necklace with their baby’s name on it. Carrrying something with you is a powerful way to feel connected.

We can hold space for others in so many ways too. For instance, i recently flew my favourite butterfly kite in honour of a couple i work with. They were acknowledging the anniversary of their child’s birth by flying kites with a group of family and friends. While i wasn’t there with them, i was definitely there in spirit. This can be done in so many ways – light a candle for someone else like the Wave of Light campaign, say hi to the sunrise, donate to a children’s charity of some kind in honour of a baby you never got to meet. Send your loved one a text or call them on an important anniversary or just to say you were thinking of their baby when you saw someone who would be the same age. The website October 15 has an amazing and thoughtful list of ways you can support someone who is grieving this devastating loss.

Finally, remember there are so many different ways to grieve, and it is not up to anyone else to decide when we have moved on or not. Grief and mourning are not as linear as the Stages of Loss proclaims. I like the idea of a river, that has ebb and flow and change. It can be quiet for a bit, but then a trigger (like a baby the same age yours would have been) can make the water turn into intense white rapids.

So, if you know someone who has lost a baby, take a moment for them today or this month to let them know you were thinking of them. You could send flowers, or a meal, or just hold space by being present with them and letting them know you were thinking of them.