Offering Support to Grieving Friends

September 18, 2023
Heather Servaty-Seib

Heather Servaty-Seib

College students experience death losses more than many might imagine (25 to 30% experience the death of someone close each year). Losses amid the bustle of university life can be particularly challenging because of academic demands, the “fun” focused nature of the environment and the distance from family.

One of our most immediate reactions to someone who is grieving after the death of a loved one is often a desire to lift their mood, stop the pain and encourage them to feel better. We may want to say, “I understand.” These reactions are quite understandable and come from a place of good intentions. However, sometimes these desires can lead us to offer quick fixes, provide direct advice, spend more time talking than listening or avoiding the topic completely—especially if we have not had similar experiences.

Sara Tedrick Parikh

Sara Tedrick Parikh

If you think about it, our attempts at “solving” the situation can actually indirectly suggest to our friends that we do not believe they have the wherewithal or internal resources to cope and move forward with their lives or that we are too uncomfortable with their pain to sit with it.  

Although family, spiritual leaders and mental health professionals can all be important supports for grievers, grieving college students consistently say that they want to be able to talk about their grief with their friends, too. A critical part of supporting a grieving friend is truly being present with their pain, literally sitting with them and actively listening to what they have to say. Okay—so sometimes they need us to help distract them from their hurt!—but most of the time, they need our care and attention. 

 Active listening involves:

  • Maintaining a solid focus on what they are saying—and trying our best not to jump to conclusions or talk about how we “understand” because we experienced a similar situation. Even if we have experienced something similar—there is no way that we can deeply understand the uniqueness of their
  • Perspective-taking by imagining what they are experiencing, given what they are saying and everything else you know about them, their beliefs about the world and their relationship with the person who died. Consider that grief experiences are influenced by many factors, including not only the type of relationship but also the emotional closeness (i.e., how much the person knew about the griever’s inner thoughts and experiences), the way the person died and how preventable the death was perceived to be.
  • Allowing for silence. Yes—it can be uncomfortable at first—but it often takes silence for those who are distressed to find the best words to express what they are experiencing.
  • Accepting a wide variety of grief reactions (e.g., sadness, anger, guilt, yearning, exhaustion, spirituality changes, difficulty concentrating, loneliness). Grief represents a relationship with someone who died and relationships are complicated!
  • Going with the flow. A griever who seems to be “doing well” can experience an intense flood of grief from a seemingly small reminder. On the other hand, grievers also have times when they want to talk about other things like a stressful class, a new hobby or an upcoming date.
  • Asking open-ended questions (e.g., How, What) rather than closed-ended questions that can be answered with a yes/no response. Open-ended questions allow for reflection and consideration and expand rather than restrict conversations.
  • Offering short summaries every once in a while—so that you can be sure you hear things correctly and to show your friend that you are paying attention.
  • Tentatively sharing possible feeling words if you think your friend might be open to it. For example, “it sounds like you might be feeling____, but I may be way off base.”

Let your friend know that you want to be a source of support (e.g., I am here for you) and that you are not expecting them to feel better with a flip of a switch. Communicate to them that you believe in them—and in their ability to experiment with new ways of coping. Coping is an experimental process—what works for some people will not work for others and what works for us one day may not work the next. 

Listening supportively to a grieving friend takes time, space and practice. If your time is limited, you could say, “I only have half an hour before my next class. I know that’s not enough time to talk about everything, but I really want to hear how things have been going for you and we can talk more later.” Think ahead of how to get a private space on campus, whether it’s sitting in a parked car or planning for when roommates will be out. Supportive listening gets easier with practice, so use listening and perspective-taking skills in everyday conversations. It’s always difficult to hear about a friend’s pain, but research with Purdue students indicated that students who had listened to a grieving friend before were more confident in their ability to listen in the future.

If your friend is having difficulty functioning on a daily basis (e.g., keeping up with school work, isolating, sleeping too much/not at all, has lost interest in things they used to enjoy) or mentions thoughts of suicide, connect them with ODOS or CAPS.  We are so fortunate to have staff at Purdue who genuinely care about the well-being of students—it is not just their job—it is their mission/sense of purpose. 


Servaty-Seib, H. L., & Burleson, B. R. (2007). Bereaved adolescents’ evaluations of the helpfulness of support intended statements: Associations with person centeredness and demographic, personality, and contextual factors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(2), 207–223.

Tedrick Parikh, S. J., & Servaty-Seib, H. L. (2013). College students' beliefs about supporting a grieving peer. Death Studies, 37(7), 653-669.

Tedrick Parikh, S. J. (2014). Peer support in residence halls for grieving college students: A reasoned action approach (Publication No. 3688567) [Doctoral dissertation, Purdue University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Heather Servaty-Seib is the associate vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue University. She is a professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education with a specialization in the field of thanatology (i.e., the study of death and dying), including late adolescent/young grief, suicidal ideation and social support offered to the bereaved.

Sara Tedrick Parikh earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Purdue University, with a dissertation focused on promoting peer support for grieving college students. After several years teaching undergraduate psychology at Caldwell University, she is now the executive director for the New Jersey Psychological Association.


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