When someone you know is grieving after a loss, it can be tough to know what to say or do. What feels appropriate and helpful for one person may seem wrong for another.
If you don’t know what to say to them, here’s a good place to start. Here’s what to say to someone who is grieving:
Emily Thiroux Threatt
Author | Lecturer | Founder, Loving and Living Your Way Through Grief
When someone is grieving, knowing the best thing to say to comfort them can be a challenge.
Here is a list of things that will be good for you to express:
- Acknowledge the pain. Sometimes the griever will think they are the only one who has ever hurt like this. Tell them that their pain is real, that we all experience it at times of our lives. Let them know that you would be happy to listen.
- Tell them that you don’t know what to say and that you care, and you love them.
- Tell them the favorite thing you remember about the person who died: their smile, their laugh, and events that you shared. Tell them anything positive you remember.
- Let them know you will listen, then listen without judgment or advice. Sometimes we need to just express what we are feeling and know someone hears us.
- Tell them if you would be happy to come to stay with them for a few days or longer.
- Ask them to talk to you about their loved one any time they want.
- Tell them that they don’t have to talk, that you will just sit by them and be there for them.
- Tell them you are so sorry that they have to go through this.
- Let them know that they are in your prayers.
Just express yourself from the heart
There are lots more things you can say. Just express yourself from the heart. Trust that you will know what to say. Be honest, be kind, be loving, and the best words will come to you.
Keep in mind that when you are expressing yourself or offering advice that what you say needs to be about the person you are talking to. Be sure to think about what you want to express before you say it. If it’s not helpful and can’t be said with love, it is better not to speak.
Do be careful with religion
I have heard people throw around comments about what God would want or do, and these things can actually be hurtful depending on the person you are talking to. If you know their beliefs and can relate to them in a way you both can be comfortable with, by all means, say what you can. This can be of the deepest comfort.
If you don’t know, however, you may accidentally say something that can be of the deepest hurt. So just be cautious to express things from your heart with love.
The thing I heard more than anything else was “Just let me know if you need anything.” Please stop saying this now. They aren’t going to call you, or if they do, it’s likely to be at a point where they really need you right then and you may not be available.
Instead, be proactive. Take them food, flowers, or little gifts weeks or months after the death. Let them know they are remembered.
If you are taking food to someone who lives alone, a giant casserole is not a good idea,but that casserole divided into individual servings and wrapped for the freezer would be much appreciated.
Your presence matters
Sometimes we let our fear hinder us from doing what we would like to or what we think is best. This is not the time to let fear get in your way. Go to your friend and offer to listen, offer to help, offer to just be there. Offer to do practical things.
And remember to keep supporting your friend when all the celebrating is over and everyone goes home. She may appreciate your presence for weeks, months, or a lifetime.
This doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice what you do in your life, but you can be a good friend and love and support each other.
One of the things I do is send a note every week for a year to a friend who has lost a loved one. I’ve been told that this little reminder of love and support has helped a great deal.
What else can you do to help? My best answer is: something.
Melissa Kennedy Panto, LMHC, ATR, CT
Clinical Director, Jeff’s Place Children’s Bereavement Center
Finding the right words to say after someone dies can be a struggle. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what not to say and other than “Good riddance!” (which may be true, sometimes), the absolute worst thing to say is… nothing at all. Our society doesn’t do “grief” well. There is no empathy class taught in schools to address how to support a grieving individual.
Acknowledge the loss
Most bereaved people understand the intent or the well-meaning even if words fall short. Simple phrases such as “I am really sorry for your loss” or “Our condolences” or “I’m thinking about you” will suffice.
To make it more personal, if you are writing a sympathy card, include a special note about the person who died. Share a memory, a short story, or add what that person meant to you. These are treasured.
After death, grieving people are looking for ways to reconnect with the person who died and new stories are ways to recreate the life that they lived.
Say their name
A phrase made popular by today’s Black Lives Matter movement is “Say Their Name.” That can be true for all those who have died and those who are grieving them.
Why is it important? It shows a recognition of a life lived. It stands for the person who died and all the nuisances that come wrapped in that life. Their personality. Their quirks. Their triumphs. Their struggles.
It shows the grieving individual, your person mattered… and we will remember. Sometimes, it could be as simple as sending a text, “It’s a beautiful sunset tonight, I couldn’t help but think of Tyler.”
Listen and check in with them
It’s routine to ask, “How are you doing?” However, if you ask a bereaved individual that question, it’s a very loaded inquiry for someone newly on the roller coaster of grief. Break it into a smaller time frame. For example, “How are you doing this morning?” Grieving individuals are often living moment to moment, so acknowledge that.
If you are still struggling to find the words – be honest and sincere: “I don’t know what to say… but I am here for you.” Then show up…. And keep showing up. Sitting in silence and holding the emotional space for someone to grieve can be a beautiful unspoken gift.
If words aren’t your thing, do something
Mow the lawn, help arrange the dinner train, shovel the snow, walk their dog, or help with the carpool for the kids. Actions can speak volumes.
Words are hard in times of grief but try. Grief can feel so isolating. Words or actions can be that bridge so grievers know that they are not alone.
Director/Producer, Behind the Bullet Film
Your neighbor’s husband died suddenly. What do you do? Bring her a lasagna?
Your co-worker’s son died of suicide. Should you say something? If so, what do you say?
Your friend’s sister just died of cancer. You want to be helpful but you don’t really know what to do – should you just avoid her or say nothing?
All of us face these dilemmas periodically when something bad happens to someone we know. Many times we inadvertently say the wrong thing and increase the hurt they’re already feeling. Or we don’t do or say anything for fear that we’ll be in the way.
So here’s a practical list of 10 dos and don’ts when it comes to helping someone who’s just experienced a death or trauma:
As a rule, if you’re talking more than they are, you’re not being helpful. Think back to your worst day; who was the most helpful? The person telling you what to do or how to feel, or the person who just sat with you and let you talk and cry?
Don’t tell your story
It’s not about you. “When my father died …” language isn’t helpful. Don’t try and relate your pain – that’s essentially emotional theft.
No matter how similar your story is, it’s not theirs. Their experience is different and happening right now. Let the focus be on your neighbor, co-worker or friend.
Send a note
It may seem insignificant to you, but a thoughtful, short, handwritten note can mean the world to your neighbor who’s living through a particular kind of hell. Even if it’s months after the death, that note will mean a lot.
Don’t use platitudes
Avoid using words like, “It was God’s will,” or “She’s in God’s hands now,” or “At least he had a good life,” or “You can have other children,” Your co-worker’s son was not a goldfish and can’t be replaced by other children. Such loss is devastating and so are the mental wounds from such mindless platitudes.
Discounting statements like “at least …” hurt because nothing is going to make this situation okay. Instead, simply acknowledge the loss and express your sadness at the pain they are going through.
Don’t be vague
“Call me if there’s anything I can do” is practically useless. They’re not going to call; they’re too overwhelmed and too upset to even remember the offer. To someone in the immediacy of trauma, the phone weighs 2,000 pounds and is simply too heavy to pick up for any reason, including asking for help.
Tell your friend; “I’m cooking dinner at your house on Thursday at 6 p.m.” The smells of cooking can be extremely comforting and calming. Offer to pick up friends or relatives from the airport. Take the kids to school or babysit after school. Vacuum their house. Take their trash to the curb on trash day. Imagine what you would least like to do in their situation – then volunteer to do it for them.
Don’t bring a lasagna. People under extreme duress do not eat meals, they snack. Bring fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, and crackers – foods that you can eat with your fingers that don’t require cooking or clean up.
Stress shuts down the digestive system. Heavy meals that require prep and clean up just add to the stress.
Do bring essentials
The three things that people most need immediately after a death or trauma are tissues, bottled water, and toilet paper.
As family members, friends, and neighbors arrive they all need tissues and water. Water bottles eliminate the need for cups and clean up. More people mean more bathroom visits so the need for more toilet paper becomes essential.
If you see your friend’s sister at the grocery store, don’t duck behind the soup display because you can’t think of anything to say. This just makes the person feel alienated and lonely.
Acknowledge what happened by saying something like, “I’m so sorry this happened.” You don’t have to save them or provide a counseling session. They might want to talk, they might not. Your lack of comfort will only make them feel more alienated. A simple hug goes a long way.
“She should have had a helmet on” or “Your son was selfish for committing suicide.” That may be true, but it will cut them like a knife to hear it while they’re still processing what happened.
No matter what your feelings use neutral language, “I remember Mike’s smile. He was also so helpful to us. I’m sorry. How are you doing?”
In fact, a simple “How are you doing?” can go a long way. These situations are uncomfortable – for everyone. But with a little thought, we can avoid increasing the hurt and even help when the worst happens to our neighbors, co-workers, or friends.
Dr. Colleen Cira
Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Trauma and Anxiety Expert | Founder, Cira Center Consulting, LLC
It’s hard to see people we love in pain so we do all sorts of things to make ourselves feel better when we’re in this situation—which makes sense.
Seeing loved ones grieving is painful for us and as humans, we’re programmed to avoid pain (damn evolution) so there’s no judgment here. We all say the wrong thing when we’re hurting because that’s a human thing to do.
But the key here is to realize that our response is based on wanting our pain to go away or their pain to go away and there’s nothing that can be said that will do that. Period. That sucks, but that’s true. So here are some of the things we say and do that are well-intentioned, but not helpful.
Don’t offer spiritual platitudes
- “They’re in a better place now.”
- “They’re with God now.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “I once heard a priest say that these sorts of vague but rosy platitudes are in practice bad spirituality, and I would have to agree.”
All of these things are meant to make the individual feel better, but they usually make the survivor feel worse because it sounds like you’re telling them they have nothing to be sad about.
- “Did you even know that person that well?”
- “I mean, I get that it’s sad, but I also don’t see why you’re so upset.”
It’s a crazy time and we may feel incredibly sad about someone’s death—even if we weren’t all that close with them or they weren’t a part of our everyday lives. Everyone is entitled to their feelings. Don’t make them feel like they aren’t just because you don’t understand.
Don’t try to fix people or take away their pain
- “I love you.”
- “I’m here for you.”
- “I wish I could make this better for you..”
- “I feel so helpless and want to fix it, but I know that I can’t.”
- “I have no idea what the “right thing” to say is, but I’m here trying and I’ll keep trying.”
- “Is there anything that I can do to help?”
- “Can I just sit with you?”
Don’t try to fix people or take away their pain. Sometimes just sitting with them in it is all that’s needed to let that person know that someone cares.
Rodger B. Murchison
Christian Minister | Author, “Guide for Grief”
When my mother died, I heard so many voices say, “Well, I know you are glad she is out of her pain and misery. After you and she dealt with Alzheimer’s for five years, it is a blessing that you both are set free.”
Of course, I knew they meant well with what they were saying about my grief but I had to restrain myself from saying to them, “It is My Mother who has died, thank you very much. Don’t tell me it is a blessing.”
Words can create so many emotions. What we say or maybe do not say to someone who is grieving the death of a loved one can elicit an enormous range of emotions. What do you say to someone who is grieving?
The first thing we should do is listen
As we listen to someone who is grieving, we can better understand where they are in their grief. Often the ministry of presence, just being there, can say more than any amount of words.
As I listened to Sue blame God for the death of her infant daughter, I heard this grieving mother say over and over why. She had prayed to get pregnant. She had prayed for a healthy baby. Why would God do this to me, she asked?
What do you say in the face of so much pain and grief? The first thing you do not say is a defense of God. This is not the time for theological debate or some lame religious explanation that God wanted one more little angel in heaven.
As I listened carefully to Sue’s grief, I heard multiple times the word why. I gave her plenty of time to ask all of her “why” questions. Why did my daughter die? Why could the doctors not save her? Why do I have to suffer all this pain?
In grief, these are universal questions, but they are not intellectual inquiries. These are pleas from the heart. From deep within our soul, we seek to understand this painful mystery. These are appropriate questions.
And if you are wanting to know what to say to someone who is grieving, first let them vent their feelings and have the patience to listen.
After a litany of why questions, the grieving person will probably, through exhaustion, realize that these types of questions are a one-way road to nowhere. They have to ask them but they are not satisfying and they do not solve the painful mystery of death. When they reach that reality, I suggest changing the question from “why” to the more practical “what”.
What do we do now that this has happened? What can be done that would honor the memory of the deceased? What can be done for the sake of the ones who grieve?
By posing this new kind of question, we open a world of possibilities – possibilities that can be extremely healing to a hurting heart.
“Why” questions express our negative feelings: Why now? Why did someone so young, so good, so innocent have to die? Why was I not prepared?
In contrast, “what” questions have so much positive potential: What can I do to honor my daughter’s memory? What should I do to support my grieving spouse? What are the signs of hope I may not be seeing?
What questions do not take away all the pain but they do allow us to reframe the reality of death. By reframing our grief with a different set of questions, we find ourselves moving from death and despair to life and hope.
What do you say to someone who is grieving? After doing a lot of listening and encouraging changing “why” questions to “what”, a person should say words and thoughts that are natural to them.
Do not try to be someone or something you are not
Strive to be yourself and speak to the person who is grieving in a caring and supportive conversational manner. Do not ignore the name of the deceased. Speak that name in your conversation. It is helpful to the person who is grieving when they hear the name of their loved one.
Remind them not to rush the grief process
Grief work takes time for a person to move toward any type of resolution. One important thing to say to someone who is grieving is to remind them not to rush through the grief process.
It is important for the mourner to remember that although no one welcomes grief, grief itself is not the enemy. The definition of grief is “our response to loss”. People grieve for all kinds of reasons: loss of a loved one to death; loss of health; loss of a job; loss of relationships; infertility; separation; infidelity; divorce; spiritual crisis; retirement – on and on.
Grief is like breathing air and drinking water. If you are going to live, then you are going to grieve.
Encourage them to look from a new perspective
As you talk to a grieving friend, it is often good to encourage them to look at the death of their loved one from a new point of view. A technique for allowing grief to mature is called ‘reframing’.
This technique encourages the bereaved to look at the circumstances of their loved one’s death from a new perspective. In my own life, I have experienced this truth. When my father died, I often was plagued by negative thoughts like these:
“God, look at what I have lost! I can’t call Dad on the phone; can’t ask him for advice. He won’t see my children graduate from high school or college or get married.”
I don’t know what finally helped me to ‘reframe’ my grief. I give God the credit. Instead of focusing on what I had lost, I began to say:
“God, look at what I gained in life thanks to my wonderful Dad! He was a good father, a good husband to my mother, involved in community and church activities. What a blessing that I ever knew him at all!”
In reframing my grief, or looking at my grief from a new perspective, I did not change the fact that my father was dead. What changed was the way in which I understood my father’s death. For people who are grieving, it can be comforting and reassuring for them to hear you say, let’s look at this death from this viewpoint.
What do you say to someone who is grieving? Knowing just the right words to say may not be the answer to this very important question.
If we are struggling for just the right words to say, it is best to remember that less is more. The very fact you are there with them in their time of sorrow and pain may say much more than any words can express.
Finding the right words to say to someone who is grieving is difficult because there are so many wrong words to say: “Everything happens for a reason,” “This will only make you stronger,” “They are in a better place now,” “It will get easier with time”, “[insert name] wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
These are all very commonplace phrases and yet they can come across as invalidating, infantilizing, insensitive, and oftentimes downright untrue.
When someone has experienced a particularly painful loss, he or she is left with a big gaping hole in their life that no one and nothing can fill. The reality of this loss, and the pain that comes with it, is so immense that it makes others uncomfortable.
The most genuine words will come when we make a conscious effort to stop avoiding our own discomfort and stop trying to fix, excuse, or ameliorate the person’s grief.
Here are a few examples:
- “This is so painful. I can’t possibly understand what you are feeling but I am here and I will be here.”
- “It’s so unfair that you are having to go through this. What can I take off your plate?”
- “I know there are no words that can soothe this type of pain. I am here if you want to talk about [insert name], if you want something dropped off at your front door, or anything else that will make life more bearable right now.”
Another option is to talk about the person being grieved
People often avoid saying the person’s name or sharing a memory for fear that it will upset the grieving friend. They are already upset and grief is always with them.
Sharing fond memories often gives them an invitation to talk about the person they are grieving and can feel like a welcome relief.
Founder, Grief Heroes Foundation
Help them express their feelings
Regardless of age, kids need to express their feelings when it comes to grief. Don’t just ask them how they are feeling. Instead, have them express their grief by drawing a picture that includes the person they lost, writing about special memories they have of this person, and discussing ways they can carry on their loved one’s memory.
Your children can also create a memory box filled with items that belonged to or help them remember their loved ones like photos, letters, and other mementos.
Be supportive but not pushy
Let the child grieve in their own way. Parents can play an active role in helping their kids deal with their grief. Offer support any way you can but at the same time know when to back off.
For example, you might want to push your child to try and get back into his or her normal routine or engage again in a favorite activity after the loss of a loved one. However, if the child resists and is clearly not ready, it’s important that parents respect this and back off.
Say the right things
There are definitely both supportive and non-supportive things to say to a grieving child. Never say things like, “I know how you feel,” “You will be fine,” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
Instead, be understanding and offer comfort through phrases like, “Would you like to talk about it with me?” “You can confide in me,” “I’m here to support you any way I can,” and “How can I best be your friend right now?”
Encourage your kids to say goodbye
One of the most difficult things for children and teens is when a death happens suddenly and unexpectedly and there is a lack of closure.
Help your kids draw a picture of what their “perfect” goodbye would be like or have them write a letter to the person. Having closure makes it easier to move forward.
Cope however they can
When it comes to coping with grief and all the changes taking place in your child’s life, the only rule is there are no rules. Coping is personal and what works for one child might not work as well for another.
A few coping mechanisms that tend to work well include: listening to music, drawing or writing, deep breathing, going for a walk, talking to a friend, support groups, meditation, and exercise. Most important: make sure your kids know they are not alone through all of this.
People often don’t know what to say to someone experiencing grief. It’s true that it is hard to know exactly how our words will affect another. And for this reason, some people may shy away from saying anything at all. Yet it is our fear of saying “the wrong thing” that can lead us astray.
It seems like an oxymoron to say that the worry we feel for those who are experiencing loss may be the very thing that prevents us from showing up for the people we care about and being a source of love and compassion.
Put aside the fear of “getting it right” and just say something
Before I lost my infant daughter I remember acting out of this fear and avoiding those in grief. “What if I say the wrong thing and make it worse?” I said to myself.
What I didn’t know then is that people experiencing grief often feel very isolated, as some family and community members avoid them out of fear.
I have felt this intense loneliness personally and as an MFT Psychotherapist, as expressed through my grieving clients. I know today that the important thing to remember to say to someone in grief is to put aside the fear of “getting it right.” Just say something.
I often tell my friends and clients that I want to comfort them and that I am sorry that they are in pain. I remind them that there is light at the end of the tunnel even if they can’t see it now, and I add that I know that this doesn’t take away the darkness and pain of this moment. I also like to remind them that there may be numbness, an inability to feel much of anything, and that is okay too.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There may be dangerously wrong behaviors we need to stay away from, such as over consuming alcohol and drugs, but we are allowed to feel what we feel.
I like the expression that grief comes in waves. That is, we never know when it is going to hit. Sometimes the tears are swept far away in the ocean of our consciousness. The pain can feel inaccessible for some.
And then suddenly we are hit by tsunami months or even years later. This is often the case with traumatic memories as well. Yet the all-pervading darkness that we feel in the wake of grief abates in its own time.
Unfortunately, there is no linear timeline when it comes to suffering. We are all groping in the dark when it comes to finding ways to comfort one another. When I am reaching out to someone in pain, I ask the person who is grieving to “take what you like and leave the rest.”
If we still can’t find the right words to say, sympathy cards help
It is important that the person in grief knows that they are cared for, even if you have not talked in years or only know each other as acquaintances. I find it comforting to open the cards we received from our community and to read my daughter’s name, Kara.
I don’t have the luxury of speaking the name that I gave to the living breathing girl who didn’t make it past two months old, and so seeing her name helps. Out of the knowledge of the importance that names play, I always mention the person’s name or what they were called specifically such as Pops, Papa, Mom, Daddy, Mama, Gramps, Granny, Grandma, Nana, etc.
Related: 16 Best Books to Bring Grieving Parents Hope
There are also definitely things not to say, such as “God doesn’t want you to cry”, or “I know exactly how you feel.” We all have our own thumbprints, and we can’t get inside another’s head. Remember that each person’s experience with grief is different.
The important thing to remember is that as human beings we all need connection. So stumble if you may and reach out even if your voice shakes doing it.
Christopher Drumm, MD
Family Practice Physician, Einstein Medical Center Montgomery
How are you coping? Is there anything you need? For a husband and/or wife that lost their loved ones I ask how they met? Where was their first date? People realize their loved ones may have died but they do not want them to be forgotten.
Remind them of a funny/interesting interaction you had with their family member
Like I remember the time I gave your husband a cortisone shot in his knee so he could compete in his bowling tournament. Or how excited someone’s recently deceased mother was when she went to her granddaughter’s wedding.
Leave out the negatives
This is not a time to remind a woman that her husband had cheated on her years back. Or that his kidneys failed because he did not take his blood pressure medications. There is no need to bring up the past at this time.
Continue to ask about how they are doing
It could be 6 months or 6 years but people grieve for different amounts of time. Do not avoid the topic. Widows want to talk about their husbands that have passed. Unless they are there with their new boyfriends.
Take notes on patients
Learn about their lives. Because no one will be here forever. And everyone hopes to be remembered by someone.
Marriage and Family Therapist
When someone close to you is experiencing grief, it is natural to want to jump in and fix it for them. Watching someone suffer naturally brings up discomfort in ourselves.
You just want to make it better for them, make the suffering go away. You might avoid talking about the subject of their grief, for fear of not knowing what to say.
You might be compelled to tell them something like, “You have an angel in heaven, now,” or “You need to move on. Try and stay busy.”
But, look at this avoidance and these statements carefully and you can see the real message behind them; a well-intentioned response can say to a grieving person, “You shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
Don’t try to fix their pain
It is a hard reality for all of us to accept that there are things in this world that are terribly painful, things that happen to us and our loved ones that we can’t control and cause so much anguish. And, this is the truth; inherent in life is the fact that we will all experience tragedy.
With the loss, we experience grief. This is just the way it is- sadness is a natural response to losing something that we care about or that gave us a sense of safety. So, when talking to someone who is grieving, don’t try to fix their pain. It won’t work, and it will make them feel even more alone.
Their grief just needs to live in them for a while, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for them and for you. Many experts agree that trying to push grief away is actually a cause of depression; fully experiencing grief is the only way for it to pass and make meaning of the loss.
Be with them
Your task is not to make a grieving person feel better, but less isolated in their experience. This person may feel that they are in a sinking boat. Get in the boat, sink with them.
Try saying something like, “It’s ok not to be ok,” “You can cry with me- I am here,” “Tell me about them. I want to hear everything,” or, “Sometimes with grief, there are no words. I can just sit here beside you.”
Responses like these acknowledge that grief is a natural human emotion, convey that you accept this person’s experience the way it is, and show them that you are present when they need you. This is what a grieving person needs to hear.
Of course, responding in this way takes a lot of courage on your part. You have to learn to sit in another’s grief and with your own uncertainty. You have to move from the illusion that you can provide a solution to the truth that you can’t do a thing to stop the grief.
This is an incredibly challenging job, and yet the only way to truly help. When another’s heart is broken, let them have yours. It’s the hardest thing to do, and all you need to do.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
When a person is grieving, it is often impossible to access even the most basic levels of self-care. Awareness of self and personal needs often get buried beneath the overwhelming emotions of grief.
It is important to be aware of this emotional state when attempting to support a person who is grieving. So how do you support someone who is lost in their grief?
One of the first and most vital responses is to ask the grieving person if they need anything
As simple as it sounds, when grief strikes it is often impossible for the grieving person to take care of their most basic needs. By checking in and letting them know that you are there to support them during this crisis you are offering comfort on the most basic level.
Offer a specific and concrete way in which you can assist
Sometimes, they will be able to easily identify a need and at other times they may have trouble figuring out where they need help. If you find that they are in the latter place, offer a specific and concrete way in which you can assist.
This offer of assistance can be as simple as dropping off food for them or the entire family, maybe taking their kids for an afternoon so that they can rest, or assisting in managing banking and bills.
By simply being present and offering practical support you are creating a space where the grieving person can feel like their life is just a tiny bit less chaotic and that there are still people who love and care for them.
Thanatologist/Deaducator | Founder and CEO, A Grieving World
Grief isn’t an issue we’re comfortable with. We don’t like talking about it let alone thinking about it, but grief is all around us. We’re currently grieving the magnitude of effects from climate change, fires, Covid-19, and tropical storms/hurricanes.
What is the best thing to say to someone who is grieving? Choose words that acknowledge your compassion for what that person is experiencing. “I’m sorry” is helpful. It’s what we say when we don’t know what to say. But it’s a good start because at least you’re aware that your friend/loved one is hurting.
Since some people have a difficult time asking for help, this is a good way in
If the person says “I’m fine” perhaps consider dropping in from time to time to check on your friend/loved one with the excuse of dropping off flowers, coffee, or anything that will give you a chance to visit.
Often once a person is present with their friend/loved one, the door opens to be able to offer support. This is a time for you to listen to your grieving friend/loved one. It’s not a time for you to share how you are feeling.
Allen Klein, MA, CSP
Former Director, Life-Death Transitions Institute, San Francisco | Author, “Embracing Life After Loss”
One thing you should not say is, “I know how you must be feeling”
Even though you may have lost someone in the past, you can’t really know how someone else is feeling in their loss. Each circumstance is different, each person handles a loss in a different way.
In one case, it might be a relief if the deceased had lived a long life and is no longer suffering after years of pain. On the other hand, the situation might be totally different if the deceased was young or the death sudden.
Acknowledge their pain
In addition, because of the quarantine and the current shelter in place, the person grieving may not have been able to be with their loved one while they were ill or when they passed. In addition, it was probably not possible to have the customary funeral, burial, or celebration of life memorial service.
The best one can do for someone who is grieving is to listen to what they are saying and acknowledge their pain. “I’m so sorry for your loss, this must be extremely difficult for you.” Then just be a good ear for them as they vent their feelings. If laughter comes up, laugh with them. If tears come up, cry with them.
Related: What Can I Say Instead of “Sorry for Your Loss”
Charlene Walters, MBA, PhD
Writer | Speaker | Business & Branding Mentor, Own Your Other
The truth of the matter is that there is no right answer here
It doesn’t matter so much what you say to someone who is grieving, but that you are instead, just present. Let the person know that you are there for them and willing to help them however you can – maybe taking over some of their tasks or obligations so that their time is freed up so that they have time to actually grieve.
They might not show their appreciation right away, but when they get some distance and look back on it, they’ll be grateful for your help and presence when they needed you most.
When my husband passed away, so many friends were willing to help and just spend time with me. I am still grateful to them years later.
It’s not about what you say, but just being around when someone needs a shoulder to cry on or wants to vent.
The worst thing that you can say is nothing at all, and the best thing that you can say is “I’m here for you. What do you need?”
Josh Jonas, LCSW-R
Psychotherapist | Clinical Director and Co-Owner, The Village Institute for Psychotherapy
Do not say “Hi! How are you?” to someone who is grieving
When I was a bartender, a husband and wife that were regulars of mine lost their child in 9/11. I learned very quickly DO NOT say “Hi! How are you?” to someone who is grieving. To them, it is a stupid, non-answerable question. “So good to see you guys,” is what I would say every time I saw them from behind the bar.
There is some contradictory wiring that our bodies have. On a deep level, we are wired to stay away from pain. This works well if we touch a hot stove or see a baseball coming at us out of the corner of our eye.
But when we are experiencing emotional pain, grief specifically, our instincts do not serve us in the same way. We try to avoid the grief inside of us the same way we would try to avoid a bus coming at us-by trying to get away from it. The problem is that while avoiding the bus stops you from dying, avoiding the grief makes you want to.
We often think that grieving or mourning is only needed for a physical death. But there are many things through the course of a lifetime that demand our grieving. The end of a relationship, a childhood that we never had, as well as the death of a loved one, all require grieving.
It was in the early 1900s when Freud wrote about the massive importance of grieving, explaining that grieving begins with our bodies recognizing that something that was in the outside world is now gone, and we deeply miss it.
If we don’t go through this process of acknowledging something missing on the outside, the thing that is missing gets put inside. And the experience of something missing on the inside is what we know as depression.
And so deep depression and anguish comes from us trying to get away, out of our bodies, in order to avoid the pain. (This is why in cultures that use a shaman, the shaman is called when someone is depressed in order to put their soul back in their body.)
The belief being if it’s this painful while I’m avoiding, feeling all of this fully would be too much, unbearable, and I’d probably drown in the pain.
The irony is that the process of truly grieving is less painful than the ignoring of unprocessed grief. So once someone is truly grieving, there is not much that’s needed to be said as they are now in the process of letting deep pain, sorrow, run through them.
Grieving is not without its pain, but that pain is nothing compared to the suffering of not grieving. Wordsworth said “deep distress hath humanized my soul,” and this is the process and power of grieving. Waiting on the other side of your grief is a deeper, more human, more realized, and meaningful life.
Madelaine C. Weiss, LICSW, MBA, BCC
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
To the question of what to say to someone who is grieving, I would say this: It doesn’t matter.
In the words of beloved poet, memoirist, civil rights activist, Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you did or said, they will remember how you made them feel.”
I know this to be true because my dad died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage when I was 15 years old, and I do not remember a single word anyone said.
What I do remember, with an image in my mind as vivid as if it were today, is my girlfriends taking me shopping to buy a black dress.
I remember bumping into my mom’s friends in the store; maybe they were there to buy something for the funeral too. After all, my dad was a clothing manufacturer, and there would be a lot of people there, so I guess everyone wanted to look good or look right or something.
The women fell apart when they saw me. So many decades later, I quake with emotion as I write this to you about them. I can’t hear them. I have no clue what any of them said. But I can still see the tears on their cheeks and the anguish in their eyes as they hugged me too much.
And, without a word I knew then and know now that I was loved. Not just by my mom’s friends, but by my two best friends, one on each side, holding me up. Maybe they were talking. I wouldn’t know. But I can still feel them all loving me. I do know they all made me feel loved.
So there you have it, my take on why it doesn’t matter what you say. Please relieve yourself, and the bereaved too, of any performance anxiety about saying the right thing. That’s about you, and will get between you and the person who just needs to feel you there. Really there.
All that matters is that you are there and that you care. That’s it. I would say easy peasy, and yet I know that to just be present at the moment for another human being is a lot harder than it sounds. That’s what makes it such a gift. Practice, practice, practice…and know that you did good, just because you tried.
Having experienced my own fair share of grief, both of my parents were deceased by the time I turned 25, and through the clients that I work with, I have gained great insight into how to respond to someone who may be grieving.
Express your support
A simple, but often overlooked response, would be to say, “I am not sure what to say right now, but I am here/care for you.” This response allows for someone to express support for someone experiencing grief, while not invalidating or over-normalizing their feelings.
Acknowledge the loss
“I am sorry you are experiencing this right now”. You can offer to do something for the person who is grieving, such as providing a meal or running an errand.
Sometimes, saying nothing at all, and providing a hug (with permission of course) or another form of physical touch and simply being present with someone during their grief can be a great option.
Dr. Susan Bartel
Associate Professor of Online Higher Education Leadership, Maryville University
Knowing what to say to a person who is grieving is a challenge. Most of us want to avoid pain and sadness and feel awkward so we say nothing.
The most important thing to do is to show up
Most mourners benefit from caring, compassionate, authentic comments. An offer to listen, sit quietly with them, or be available anytime day or night communicates compassion and respect. They don’t need advice, remarks that are judgmental, or communications of “at least”, which are hurtful.
If the loss is new, a statement like “I know I can’t take away your pain but I will be present for you in the weeks and months ahead” shows understanding and care.
If you don’t know the person well a simple “I didn’t know Alice but she sounds like such a wonderful person. I would like to hear more about her” shows respect and concern.
Small gestures of help without being asked can be meaningful to a grieving person
Words are what we think of as the way to support others but reaching out with tasks speaks louder than words. Weed the garden, shovel snow, take the dog for a walk, drop off breakfast or groceries, and take care of daily chores to ease the burden of grief.
With COVID-19, there are varied experiences of loss of all types giving many opportunities to care for others. It doesn’t take much effort to support a grieving person, but it can make a big difference in their healing.
Jared Heathman, MD
Online Psychiatrist, Your Family Psychiatrist
“What time would you like dinner today?”
While you may find that sentence a bit direct, those overcome with grief often neglect self-care and decline vague offers of support.
They aren’t motivated to cook themselves healthy meals. You have probably declined general assistance in the past. Most people have. It is easy to refuse someone when they offer to help.
When you are experiencing grief, you aren’t thinking about your current needs and wants. You are overcome with loss. When someone asks how they can help, it is easy to say that you have it covered. You thank them for the offer and move on.
Grief is frustrating. It causes fatigue, anger, and forgetfulness. There isn’t a road map to feeling better. Grief needs friends and family that will provide support without having to ask what kind of support is needed.
Delivering food, getting the mail, dropping by for a hug unannounced, and other support is appreciated. You don’t even have to live near your loved one since the invention of Uber Eats and Door Dash.
Given time and an address, you can have food delivered across the country in under an hour. It doesn’t have to be fancy either. It is a huge gesture in a time of stress, and your loved one will likely remember your simple gesture for years.
Founder and CEO, Grief Coach
Sometimes after a death, we feel afraid to mention the person who’s died, because we don’t want to upset our grieving friend or family member. But what I hear most often from people who are grieving, is that they wish people still talked about their loved one.
Use the name of the person they’re grieving for in conversations
One of the most helpful things you can do for someone who’s grieving is to use the name of the person who’s died. Ask questions (i.e. “what was Josh’s favorite subject in school?”) and share memories (i.e. “I’ll always remember how much fun we had when you and Henry hosted Thanksgiving”).
This gives your grieving loved one an invitation to talk about the person they are missing and also reassures them that their loved one will always be remembered. That they mattered.
Owner, Cornerstone Funeral Services
We all grieve so differently even though there are five commonly observed stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The duration of the mourning process can be influenced by the relationship to the deceased or the amount of support received.
That said, people mourning are not being supported by the standard channels due to social distancing. Here is what I can offer as a new normal to dealing with grief during COVID-19:
Let them know that you care about what they have to say
Acknowledge the depth of their grief via phone, in person, and over email. Let them know that it is natural to feel sad, or frustrated, or angry during this literally bad time to die in the world. Maybe most important is to remember that grief belongs to the griever, in this case, the person possibly grieving for their own existence on the planet.
You can connect with them best by showing a sincere interest in their experience. Our physicality may be limited at this point in the world’s grief cycle, but the love we share matters so very much as we are all in this together.
When I lost my daughter back in 2007, I was devastated. I was newly in recovery from a slew of addictions and her loss was unexpected. Being 30 weeks pregnant and being told your baby has complications unfixable is heartbreaking. When my daughter was born and just 20 minutes later died in my arms, my world crumbled.
An emptiness that still to this day has not been filled as it once was. Yoga and awareness of my thoughts, emotions and feelings played a big role not only in my recovery, but in navigating the loss of my daughter (both for my husband and I).
Offer to listen
I’ll just say it, comforting others who are grieving is a sticky situation. And for the one moving through the grief, comparison of their grief to yours is not helpful. But what is helpful is offering to listen.
In my experience when you are in the thick of grief, the last thing I wanted to hear was “everything happens for a reason”, or “you’ll get through this”. But what I wanted was someone to just hold the space, sit with me and let me cry, let me say things I don’t mean, but at the moment I am feeling. And afterward, say nothing. Hug me and kiss my forehead and say “I am here for you”.
We live in a culture that wants to fix things, take the pain away. But when you lose someone, the only way out of the pain is to move through it. And one of the best things for support persons is to just hold the space and be there.
There is nothing to fix. Some things are just broken and I’ve learned that it is OK to feel that brokenness. There will come a time that “moving on” necessary.
That support words, quotes, and stories will be comforting, and to the other person, if you stop, take a breath and feel the moment, you’ll know.
Sometimes the best comfort has no words, but rather an emotional exchange of comfort, stability, and strength to help the other overwhelmed with grief to be weak and feel their grief.
When I now approach and comfort another in grief, I remember it is not about me, and this is something they must feel, and process through. And they way I can best help is to be there, be a shoulder, be an ear, be strong so they don’t have to. That type of strength requires no words.
Theresa Dominguez-Weiss, FNP (retired)
Retired Nurse | Owner, Theresa’s Journey
Help someone else heal
Reach out to someone else who has suffered a painful loss. Listening to them and encouraging them to share allows a different perspective that can help ease your pain. The gratitude that will come from the other person will assist in your personal healing.
Nature is a powerful healer. Even if you live surrounded by concrete, find a tree, flowers, a plant. Sit or stand quietly there for a moment. If you can touch the tree or plant or flower. As best as you can block out the noise around and just completely concentrate on that bit of nature.
Allow yourself to “feel” your loss
Be sad, feel choked up, feel angry, if just for a few moments. Your breathing will automatically begin to slow down, causing a lessening of the tension you have been holding.
Listen to uplifting beautiful music
Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, or Chopin’s concertos will truly uplift the spirit with their melodious notes. Neurochemical changes inside the brain causing a sense of relaxation actually takes place by doing this.
Hypnotist | Author, “Subconscious Power: Use Your Inner Mind to Create the Life You’ve Always Wanted”
Allow them to grieve without embarrassment
When we grieve, we grieve to the same level we loved. As a grief counselor, acknowledging the depth of grief and relating that grief to the depth of love, allows the griever to grieve without embarrassment, shame, and the primal mechanism that keeps us presenting that everything is okay.
It’s very primal to brush grief away were to push it down inside the psyche. The problem with this is it emerges eventually. Science shows us that grieving is healthy whether it’s for a pet, a loved one, or loss of anything at all. If we loved a little, we grieve a little. If we loved a lot, we grieve a lot whether it shows on the exterior are not.
Allowing someone to grieve and being an agreement with their grieving, gives permission to that person to express themselves.
CEO and Co-Founder, Ever Loved
‘I’m so sorry for your loss. Can I help you by…?’
When experiencing intense grief, even basic daily tasks can be extremely difficult. Offering to bring over a meal, run an errand, or help in another way can make a real difference.
If he or she has kids, offering childcare can also be a big relief. Taking the kids out for an afternoon gives the parent space to grieve while providing the kids with an often desired distraction.
It’s also significantly better to offer something specific, instead of asking how you can help. While a generic offer to help often comes with great intentions, it puts the burden on the grieving person to come up with someone they feel is socially appropriate.
If you’re unsure what would be most helpful, you can offer a few different suggestions of how you’d like to help and let the person choose.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some cultural or religious differences in grieving?
There are many cultural and religious differences in grieving. For example, in some cultures, grief is expressed very openly, while in others, it’s considered more private.
Some religions have certain rituals or practices related to mourning and remembrance, such as wearing black clothing or reciting prayers.
It’s important to respect cultural and religious differences when supporting someone who is grieving. If you aren’t sure what is appropriate, ask the person directly or do research to learn more.
Is it normal to grieve after a loss that isn’t related to death, such as a divorce or job loss?
Yes. These losses can be just as significant and impactful as death and can lead to a range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, and confusion. It’s important to take time to grieve and express your feelings. Seek support from friends, relatives, or professionals if needed, and consider engaging in self-care activities that bring you comfort and joy.
How can I deal with triggers that remind me of my loss?
Triggers that remind you of your loss can be difficult to deal with because they can bring up intense emotions and memories.
It’s important to acknowledge and validate your emotions, take care of yourself, and seek support from friends, family, or a professional if needed. Consider creating a plan to manage triggers, such as avoiding certain situations or engaging in relaxation techniques when triggers occur.
Remember that healing is a gradual process and that taking time to process your feelings and find your own path to healing is okay.
How can I manage my grief when I have to return to work?
Returning to work after a loss can be difficult, as it may be challenging to focus on work responsibilities while dealing with intense emotions.
It’s important to communicate with your employer or supervisor about your needs during this time and take time off or adjust your workload if necessary.
Seek support from friends, relatives, or professionals if needed, and consider talking to a therapist about strategies for managing your grief at work.
How can I find a support group for grief?
Finding a support group for grief can be a helpful way to connect with others who have had similar experiences. Consider asking your healthcare provider or therapist for a referral or searching online for local support groups in your area.
You may also find support groups from organizations such as the National Alliance for Grieving Children or the Dougy Center. Remember that support groups are there to provide emotional support and guidance, and it’s important to find a group that aligns with your needs and values.
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