How To Support a Grieving Person

Jacqueline Dooley
5 min readMar 29, 2019

Advice from a bereaved mother on how to be present in grief.

Photo by Jacqueline Dooley

It happened right before Christmas — about nine months after my daughter died.

I was in the UPS store waiting in line with a wrapped package when I spotted the parent of a boy my daughter had gone to school with for years. Her back was turned, but I knew it was only a matter of time before she’d see me in the tiny space where I huddled near the door.

Our children had graduated from the same eighth grade class in 2015. I hadn’t seen her since then, except once. She’d walked right past me as if she didn’t know me.

I tensed as she turned around, wondering if she’d pretend not to see me this time too. As she made her way to the exit, she looked at me, and her face froze with shock, then stiffened into a smile.

“Hello,” she said, stopping with her hand on the door. “I read everything you write.” I assumed that was her way of telling me she knew my daughter had died. “I’m really sorry.”

“Thanks,” I replied and before I could say much more, she fled. I watched her, baffled and hurt, wondering if I should’ve done or said something different. Later, a mutual friend confirmed that she’s “really uncomfortable around death.”

I thought back to the first encounter I’d had with the woman, the time when she’d walked past me as if she hadn’t seen me. It had been in the summer, shortly after my daughter died.

“That was the worst anyone’s made me feel since Ana died,” I told my friend.

I was angry for a while, and then I let it go. Still, I wondered if other people felt that way about me. Did people avoid me? Was there a time limit to this new identity of mine, or would I always be regarded as a grieving mother, a worst-case scenario?

Death is hard, but grief Is not contagious.

Death used to make me uncomfortable too. Before Ana died, I didn’t have much experience with traumatic loss. I hope that I wouldn’t have tried to avoid a grieving parent, but — honestly — I don’t know how I would’ve reacted if the tables had been turned.

Jacqueline Dooley

Essayist, content writer, bereaved parent. Bylines: Human Parts, GEN, Marker, OneZero, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Pulse, HuffPost, Longreads, Modern Loss