I am an Interfaith minister and spiritual counselor in NYC. I see grief in all forms on a relatively consistent basis and no, not everyone grieves the same way. However, what I can offer you are some simple and basic guidelines that are universal in comforting those who are in need.
1- Listen and hold space. This is the greatest gift you can ever give another human being. Be present, compassionate and let them do the talking. Don’t be afraid to sit in silence together, lay your hand on theirs or offer a hug. There is great healing that can come from sitting quietly or simply allowing them to cry without interruption.
2- Avoid common phrases like, “everything happens for a reason, he’s in a better place, this too shall pass”, and so on. Being witness to pain can be uncomfortable so we go into auto pilot and will rely on what we think we’re supposed to say. Try to avoid that and speak from the heart. “I’m so sorry that you’re hurting, I’m here and I love you” is much more sincere.
3- When they get angry (and they will eventually) and talk about how unfair life is, don’t try to explain it away… on the contrary, it’s best to simply agree. When I’m asked how “God can do this”, rarely are they expecting a response. If I’m pressed (which isn’t often) I will say with sincerity, “I just don’t know.” The truth is, people aren’t usually looking for answers, they just need to be heard. Avoid projection that can come from personal pain or a need to “fix everything”.
4- If you want to offer real support, be genuinely proactive. “Call if you need anything” is not proactive — and they’re never going to call. The better approach would be to call and say, “I have prepared a meal for you and your family and would like to bring it by around 5:00, does that work for you?”
Grief has many stages and manifests in different ways. Whether you’re dealing with death, a break up or job loss, often the most powerful consolation you can offer is simply your love and presence.