One of the most important things many people in my experience have commented on is that when you see them, especially for the first time after their loss, you need to express your condolences. They know, and you know the elephant in the room and it is best just to address it. Some people feel awkward and want to avoid the subject, but to the person grieving it will likely upset them more because you are ignoring the person they lost. This obviously does not apply when you are unaware of their loss-but they will be able to tell the difference between avoidance and just not knowing.
Offering Help and/or Your Company
Another important thing for supporting others who lost a loved one is be the first person to initiate contact after they start resuming their life and figuring out what their new "normal" is going to be. After a death, so many friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances will offer their sympathy and their truly well intentioned "let me know what I can do to help you", or "call me anytime you need to talk". When the person actually could use help or someone to talk to the last thing they want to do is be the one to reach out for help.
You need to know your audience to know if this is an acceptable way of supporting someone suffering a loss. Some people try and not discuss their loss in order to keep control of their emotions, but for others hearing stories and talking about their loved one validates that others remember and want to not forget the memory of the loved one.
If you are close enough with the person suffering from a loss, and you have met the deceased, sometimes it can be comforting to share a nice memory or story of the person. After a death, the person grieving might feel that they are the only one suffering so deeply or that people are too afraid to talk about their loved one. If you are close enough to want to share a story or talk about the person, it is probably o.k to simply ask if they mind if you talk about their loved one. Once you ask, they will probably tell you their true feelings. If they say it is o.k. they might really find peace and healing from talking.
Remember, Everyone is Different
One other thing to keep in mind while talking with someone about their loss is that they are grieving a unique person who passed. It is easy for people to discuss others who have also passed, but at the time they are still grieving no other person who has passed matters to them at that moment. We can feel that sharing a story offers hope and support, but they want to focus on their special loss. Remembering the person lost and the person grieving are different from everyone else in the world can help focus the attention on the situation.
As with any sensitive subject, every situation and group of people are different. Etiquette can vary based on culture too, so use your best judgement and take cues from others in and near the situation for whether your conversations or actions are acceptable. After looking for cues, I follow my heart as to what feels like the right thing to do. Offering support to others should be from the heart, and they will be able to tell your loving intentions toward them!
This post is in memory and honor of the aunt I lost to cancer last week, and in support of my uncle who has now been a widower twice because of the terrible disease, cancer.