Supporting a parent or sibling through grief can be difficult, especially if your relationship with him or her isn’t perfect (as they often aren’t). This is especially true because if you’re in a position to support your parent or sibling through grief, you’re probably experiencing some level of grief yourself.
A good place to start when thinking about how to support a parent or sibling during grief is to refer to the ring theory of grief. If your mom dies, your dad is in the center of the ring, while you and your siblings are in the same circle. If your brother-in-law dies, your sister is in the center ring but you’re quite a bit out of the circle, outside of your nieces/nephews and your brother-in-law’s parents and siblings.
Nonetheless, your close relationship with the bereaved person makes your support even more important. If your sibling loses his/her spouse, he or she might feel more comfortable asking you for help than asking the in-laws. And let’s face it: you’ve probably already seen your siblings and your parents at their worst, so they probably won’t feel as uncomfortable letting it all hang out with you around as they would with even the closest friend.
Help Handle the Details
When someone dies, there are thousands of little tasks, from arranging for cremation or burial to picking up death certificates and even paying the electric bill. Offer to help with as many of these tasks as possible.
Be the Gatekeeper
You’re also in a good position to run interference with everyone in your parent or sibling’s life who wants to help. You might set up a meal train or create a chore list to help manage offers for help or help your parent or sibling keep a social calendar.
Let Him or Her Own the Grief
Everyone grieves differently, and it’s important to give your parent or sibling as much or as little space as needed. He or she might need to cry, might need to talk about the person who died or might need someone to just be present silently. Don’t be shy about asking your parent or sibling what he or she needs and checking in to make sure what you’re doing is actually helpful.
Offer to be an Emergency Contact
Updating emergency contact information can be a grief trigger—and if your parent or sibling has recently lost his or her spouse, he or she might be wondering who to list. Proactively offering to be your parent or sibling’s emergency contact is more meaningful than just what they write at the doctor’s office—it’s a very concrete way to communicate that he or she can count on you.
Be Flexible and Forgiving
Even if your parent or sibling is usually reliable and kind, in the depths of grief he or she might forget obligations and say the wrong thing. Your parent or sibling is going to need the benefit of the doubt for a long time. They might not hold up their usual family responsibilities—and it’s up to you to understand that can happen during the grief process.
Helping a parent or sibling through grief can dramatically strengthen your relationship—or drive a wedge into an otherwise good relationship. Being thoughtful, caring and reliable as you help your parent or sibling through grief will help ensure that your help is appreciated.