How to Help Someone Whose Grief Reaction Has Become Alarming

If you believe someone needs immediate help, please call 911.

What can you do, what can you say and how can you intervene if someone close to you is struggling with grief in ways that are very concerning?

Speaking up and intervening should always be a priority if a family member or friend shows signs of being so overwhelmed by severe grief that they are at risk of a psychological breakdown, or worse, harming themselves, says Robin Fiorelli, director of bereavement and volunteer services for VITAS. 

Even if intervening causes temporary tension in your relationship, “it’s important to trust your judgment, reach out proactively and do something to help someone who is close to you,” Robin says. 

Start by leveraging your relationship by letting your family member or friend know how concerned you are, how willing you are to help and how committed you are to their recovery and return to safety and a sense of normalcy.  

How to Know If Someone’s Grief Is Serious Enough to Intervene

Take steps to intervene if you see these signs or behaviors:

  • Clear indications of self-harm risk (e.g., substance abuse, inability to care for self) 
  • Statements such as “I’m not going to be here in two weeks anyway,” “I can’t handle this,” or “I can’t get through the week”
  • Evidence that your family member or friend has the means to inflict self-harm (e.g., access to weapons, medications, etc.)
  • Any personal or family history of suicidal thoughts

What to Say to Someone Who Is Experiencing Overwhelming Grief

Approach your family member or friend with words of sincere concern. Start the conversation by saying, “Because I care so much about you…,” or “I love you and I’m concerned about you, and think you need help…,” or “I’m worried about what I’m seeing in you, and I want you to know that I’m going to help you get through this.”

Describe the specific behaviors they’ve exhibited, the thoughts they’ve verbalized or the words they’ve said to identify exactly what is causing your concern and your intervention, such as:

  • “You sleep all day till 6 p.m., and I’m worried about you.”
  • “You’ve said several times in the past week that you can’t go on living without (the person who has died), and that concerns me.”
  • “Because I love you, it’s hard to see you this way, and I think that you need help.”

As soon as you reach out and offer help, be prepared to follow through with tangible resources or your own presence to help them take the next steps. Examples of tangible help: 

  • Provide a list of local grief therapists, counselors or hospice programs and make sure they follow through with a phone call, appointment or in-person visit 
  • If suicide is a concern, provide a list of suicide hotline numbers 
  • Call VITAS at 800.723.3233 any time, including after-hours, weekends and holidays, for support from bereavement and grief professionals
  • Encourage your friend/loved one to call their personal physician for immediate help

“The most important thing is to follow up by reassuring your friend or family member that you’re not abandoning them and that you’re committed to seeing this through with them,” Robin says. “You can instill hope by saying, ‘I believe you’re going to get through this and get to the other side. You might not feel that way right now, but you will. And I’m here for you.’”

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