Knowing When A Friend Needs Help

Warning signs that a bereaved friend or relative needs help

Last updated: 25 August 2016

If you are supporting a bereaved friend or relative after the death of a loved one, it is natural that you will be concerned about how they are coping with loss and grief. Coping with bereavement is a long and complex task that brings with it many extreme emotions and there is no right way to grieve. This can make it difficult to know when a friend is just grieving in a way that is natural for them, or if they are struggling to cope and may need extra help.

Bear in mind that grief affects everyone differently and, to a certain extent, many people will experience periods of intense depressive feelings after the death of a loved one. Try to stay supportive and keep an eye on how they are dealing with these feelings.

Signs of depression

Experiencing feelings of depression during grief is different from clinical depression. Feelings of despair, sadness and loneliness during grief are common, but sometimes the bereaved also develop depression, which may require treatment.

If you are worried that your friend or relative is experiencing depression, rather than the normal emotions associated with grief, look out for the following signs:

  • They may withdraw from friends and family, choosing to be alone all the time and shying away from social occasions.
  • They might find it difficult or impossible to do essential daily tasks such as washing, getting dressed and feeding themselves.
  • They might drink more alcohol than they usually do, or use drugs.
  • Grieving people may experience small moments of pleasure or contentedness as they move towards healing. People with depression usually feel unable to enjoy anything and will not take pleasure in the things they used to.
  • They may feel tired all the time, even if they have got a good night’s sleep. Or they may find they are unable to sleep well at all.
  • They may express self-blame or the sense that they are a burden on their friends or family.

The problem is that many of these symptoms of clinical depression overlap with the symptoms of grief. If your friend experiences these feelings for two weeks or more, it may be depression that is to blame and not grief.

You should encourage them to see a doctor, who will be able to diagnose the problem and offer possible treatments. You could also point them to bereavement support organisations that could help them.

Try talking to them openly about how they are coping and offer them someone to talk to. Let them know you care about them. Though they may not respond to your offer of help at first, it can be important for them to know someone is there.

Signs of suicidal thoughts

You may be concerned that your friend or relative is thinking about taking their own life. This can be extremely worrying for you, but there may be some warning signs that they are having thoughts about committing suicide. Look out for the following signs that may indicate they need help:

  • They might talk about feeling hopeless, worthless or a burden to those around them.
  • They may become increasingly isolated and refuse to see people.
  • They might talk about feeling trapped or unable to move forwards.
  • They may express thoughts of hurting themselves.
  • You may notice they become agitated and anxious, or have extreme mood swings, including sudden, irrational anger.
  • You might notice self-destructive behaviour such as reckless driving, unprotected sex, or alcohol and drug abuse – any behaviour that suggests they do not value their life.
  • They might begin to ‘prepare’ for their death by handing out treasured belongings, getting their affairs in order, or saying goodbye to people.
  • If you notice that they are suddenly very calm and happy after a long period of intense depression, this could be a sign that they have decided to commit suicide.
  • You might notice them trying to stockpile tablets or otherwise find the means to take their life.

If your friend or relative is trying to hurt themselves or is attempting to end their life, call 999 immediately.

If you feel that your friend is close to carrying out a plan to commit suicide, take them to a hospital or contact their GP urgently. You can also call the NHS non-emergency number on 111 for further help and advice.

Read more about supporting a bereaved friend or relative, or contact Samaritans on 116 123 for guidance.