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Death and Healthy Living: Coping with Loss and Supporting Loved Ones Through Grief

Jerry Reves, M.D.
March 12, 2024
A person hugging an older person.

This is the 300th healthy aging column. Almost all the previous columns have been concerned with ways to stay healthy. However, we all know that life ends. Most readers of this column are in an age group that is increasingly aware of this fact. We face the loss of loved ones, friends, and family. Paradoxically, death is a necessary part of life. The question for the living is how to comfort the one who has just lost a beloved spouse, child, sibling, parent, friend or special person in his or her life.


The person who has suffered the loss of a loved one through death is, by definition, is a state of bereavement. It is best to understand the reactions and implications of death for the immediate survivor and for those who want to assist the bereaved.

There are many varied and often frequent reactions that are absolutely normal in a person who is bereaved. Much of the reaction is related to who died and how. For example, if a child dies suddenly from an unexpected accident or illness, the reaction in part is likely to differ from the loss of an aged parent who has had a lingering illness for years. Suicide is a particularly difficult death for the surviving loved ones because different emotions are triggered, like guilt.

Death of a spouse, sibling or friend brings a profound sense of confusion, loss, sadness, denial, yearning, and if unexpected, shock, disbelief and perhaps anger. All of these emotions and many others are normal. They wax and wane. They may be strong or weak, but can be felt for months, even years.

The most acute feelings are a sense of loneliness, insecurity and uncertainty. The loss can also mean major adjustments in living conditions, home or financial stability and a host of related matters. Things will not be the same when the loved one dies.

Normal Coping Mechanisms

There is no one set of prescribed ways to cope with the grief occasioned by death. It is normal to have 18 to 24 months or longer of a string of variable emotions mentioned above. It takes time, sometimes a very long time, to adjust to the new life without the loved one.

What is most important is that whatever the feeling or emotion, it should be encouraged to find full expression. If it is crying or retelling the events of the last amount of time numerous times, this is a normal way to begin to accept the very real sense of loss and adjust to it.

It is not unusual for the mourning person to become isolated and develop disordered sleep, intestinal upset, loss of appetite, energy and enthusiasm, and many physical problems. These normal responses only become problematic if the mourner develops clinical depression that requires professional diagnosis and treatment.
Each person experiences this profound loss differently, but each individual can and does benefit from having a supportive friend.

What You Can Do To Help

Family and friends can be an enormous source of comfort and support to the bereaved. In fact, it is healthy for both of these to occur. It benefits the grieving person and gives meaning to the friend's life. There are a number of things to do and a few not to do to assist a friend or family member who has just lost a loved one. Most of us are uncomfortable trying to offer comfort.

Below, I list some of the practical and proven contributions one can make to help another at this time. The single most important thing that one can do to help another through the loss is to be present, available and a patient listener.

Acts of Assistance to Help Someone Mourning Death of a Loved One

  • Be present
  • Listen compassionately – encourage the mourner to talk
  • Be patient with mood/emotion changes
  • Offer to help with things (e.g., meals, chores, errands, etc.)
  • Acknowledge the profound loss
  • Be cautious with "advice"
  • Assist with paperwork, etc., that needs to be done
  • Remember anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, etc.

There are a good number of things not to do when trying to comfort.

  • First, is not to minimize the loss or tell the bereaved things like "you'll feel better in time."
  • Also, resist talking about your experience or that of others. Remember that this is a unique loss for the bereaved, and what has happened to you or others is not important because each person must grieve in his or her own way.
  • The well-meaning person of faith who says, "They are in a better place," is not comforting to the person still in this now even worse place. Silence is sometimes golden in these times; your presence speaks volumes. It is your presence and not your words that are most important.


Death is an expected and planned event in every major religion. Formal religions have beliefs and ceremonies that have dealt with death forever. For persons of deep faith, the service held to mourn the dead is a meaningful ritual with scripture that brings comfort and consolation. Officials of the religion are trained to bring a message that consoles no matter the circumstances.

If the person is one of faith and expresses it in conversation, honor such beliefs and the comfort people receive from their abiding faith. Rejoice in their devotion that eases their pain.

The Bottom Line

We do all we can to encourage healthy aging, but inevitably death awaits us all. When a loved one or friend loses a loved one, we can help people through this very difficult time. In helping them we also help ourselves by offering aid and comfort, one of many of the ways to achieve healthier aging. As we age, these opportunities become more numerous.