How to comfort a loved one coping when their parent has a serious, progressive illness

A parent dying is sadly something that many of us will have to deal with during our lifetime, but despite how common this is, we often struggle to know how to comfort someone who is experiencing the death of a parent.

Grief can take many forms, and the journey following the death of a parent will be unique for each person, however, there are several things you can do that will help to support someone in this situation.

Acknowledge the situation

If a loved one’s parent has a serious progressive illness, they may not necessarily bring it up in conversation when they see you, for fear of making you feel uncomfortable.

While it can be easier to simply pretend everything is fine, and continue chatting about work or everyday life, this can be incredibly hurtful to the person whose parent has died.

Although you may feel awkward because you don’t know exactly what to say, remember that whatever you are feeling pales in comparison to your friend’s grief.

Ask them how they are doing, and listen to their response. They may want to talk about how they feel, or they may not, but they will appreciate that you have shown you care.

Offer an understanding

Everyone experiences grief differently, but it can be comforting to know that others have been through a similar situation. Express your understanding of what your loved one is going through and share your sympathy with them. It may be helpful to explain how you felt when your own parents were unwell or when they died without insinuating that they should feel the same.

Share stories

It can be a great comfort for family members and friends to tell stories about the person who is approaching the end of their life. Your loved one may have their spirits lifted if you can share a memory you can recall about their parents, which might be funny, heart-warming, or even embarrassing. Remembering the person in their best light and focusing on the good times can be helpful to the healing process.

Be prepared to get it wrong

Many people feel uncomfortable around a person who is grieving or going through the death of a parent, and this can lead to avoidance, which ultimately makes the person feel worse. Know that your loved one will prefer you to be there for them and occasionally say the wrong thing, rather than not be there. Intentions are important in this situation, and nobody expects you to know all the right things to say, but the fact that you tried will be welcomed.

Keep in touch

Keeping in touch with a loved one who is going through this extremely difficult time will remind them that they have a good support system around them and that you are there if they need you. Don’t crowd or overwhelm your loved one; instead, make it clear that you are emotionally available for them.

Don’t make assumptions

Some people who are grieving will put on a brave face and continue with their daily routine as if nothing is wrong, while they feel utterly devastated on the inside, leading many people to believe they are coping well. If you see a loved one behaving as though they are fine, don’t assume that this is true. People who are grieving or experiencing the gradual death of a parent with a serious progressive illness often don’t want to be considered a burden, so they will act as if they are ok, even when they aren’t. Be prepared to ask potentially uncomfortable questions so that your friend knows they can be honest with you and give them a safe space where they can share how they truly feel.

Offer practical assistance

It’s easy to lose track of routine during these difficult circumstances, so offer your loved one some practical help by cooking meals for them, loading the dishwasher, or simply bringing over some tea bags and biscuits. You could also offer help with planning the funeral in the aftermath of a death, as this can be an overwhelming task to organise.

Continue to invite them

If you’re planning a birthday party or a trip to the cinema with friends, you might think it’s inappropriate to invite a loved one who is grieving or assume they won’t be interested. While this might be accurate, it can make the grieving person feel isolated or unwanted and send entirely the wrong message. Instead, continue to invite your friend, while acknowledging that you understand if they don’t feel like attending.

Article written by Hannah Walters