Sometimes, it can be difficult to know what to say to someone who has recently lost a loved one.
We asked a selected group of experts about what to say to someone who is grieving.
Here’s what they said.
Most Of All, Be There For Them
Allen Klein, Author of Embracing Life After Loss
Before addressing what to say to someone who is grieving, 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.
In addition, because Covid, the person grieving may not have been able to be with their loved one while they were ill or when they passed. It may have not been 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. But most of all, just be there for them.
The Best Words Are Of Sympathy And Support
Anjani Amladi, Board Certified Adult Psychiatrist
Anyone who has lost a loved one knows in that moment there is nothing that can take away the sadness.
The most important thing to remember is to be sensitive and understanding of someone’s loss.
The best words to provide are those of sympathy and support.
If you are struggling with what to say, start with listening. There is a great deal of information you can gather by listening to how someone is feeling, and if you sense that kind words could be helpful, share positive memories that you have of their loved one.
Quality is better than quantity. You don’t have to say much to convey compassion and sensitivity. If you notice that the individual who lost someone is struggling to manage with the loss, offer to help.
Ask what you can do to support them. Sometimes clearing out belongings can be difficult, and having a supportive person there can go a long way toward healing.
If you struggle to come up with comforting words in the moment, writing a sympathy card is also a great way to convey concern and care.
It is also important to remember that what to say, is just as important as what not to say.
Saying things like they’re in a better place or “you’ll be fine” can come across as invalidating, hurtful, and insensitive.
Be Understanding And Offer Comfort
Susan Binau, Author and Founder of the Grief Heroes Foundation
Say the right things. There are definitely both supportive and non-supportive things to say to someone who is grieving. 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 anyway I can”, and “How can I best be your friend right now?”.
Help them express their feelings. Expressing feelings is extremely important when it comes to grief.
Don’t just ask someone how they are feeling. Instead, have them elaborate on specific memories or have them recount a story of their loved one.
They can also express their grief in other ways besides talking, like drawing a picture that includes the person they lost, writing about special memories they have of this person, or discussing ways they can carry on their loved one’s memory.
You can also create a memory box filled with items that belonged to or help them remember their loved one like photos, letters, and other mementos.
Be supportive but not pushy. As much as you want to help, many times people need to grieve in their own way. Offer support any way you can but at the same time know when to back off.
For example, you might want to push someone 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 they resist and are clearly not ready, it’s important to respect this and back off.
Avoid Making Assumptions About Their Grief
Julie Kays, Manager and Clinical Counselor, The Counseling Center at Stella Maris
People who are grieving are often offered words of comfort, wisdom and advice that while well-meaning, are often hurtful.
There are really three categories of comments that should be avoided when trying to offer comfort to someone who is grieving.
Directives, such as, “Don’t cry”, “Stay strong”, “You’ll get over this”. These offer instruction as to what a grieving individual should be doing, rather than what they may be feeling.
Avoid offering advice and instead ask an individual how they are feeling to provide them an opportunity to appropriately express themselves.
Asking open ended questions like, “How are you doing today?” lets the griever know you are not afraid to sit with their pain or to cry with them if they give honest answers.
Assumptions, such as, “I know just how you feel”, “They are in a better place,” “At least they are not suffering”. These statements presume one knows how the griever is feeling rather than allowing them to express their own truth.
Even if the griever believes the statement is true, it does not allow room to also acknowledge the amount of pain the griever is in.
Even those who have lost a loved one cannot presume another’s grief experience is identical to theirs, as everyone’s grief journey is unique to them.
It is OK to express how you yourself are feeling about the circumstance, such as, “My heart is breaking for you”, “I wish there was something I could do to ease your pain”, or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”.
Bad Advice, such as, “Just try not to think about it”, “Stay busy and you’ll feel better”, “You can always get married again”.
Others often presume they know the best course of action to help a griever feel better, when really those who are grieving need to discover the best course of action for themselves.
While the pain of grief is often something that most people want to avoid, experiencing the range of emotions grief brings is a necessary part of healing. “Take care of yourself”, “Be wherever and however you need to be right now”, is sound wisdom that’s worth offering someone who is grieving.
The best help others can offer someone who is grieving is letting them know that they are not alone and that you are available to lend a listening heart when and if the griever needs it.
Finding a way to say, “I love you, I don’t have all the answers and I am here for you” can be just what a griever needs to hear.
Someone Who Is Grieving Should Be Gentle With Themselves
Diana Lucas Flemma, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
Because people who are grieving cannot predict when the sadness of their loss will hit them, I counsel them to lower expectations of themselves as they work through their loss.
I counsel them to be incredibly gentle with themselves, focusing on their healthiest self-care strategies – get outdoors on walks, get extra sleep, eat healthy foods.
The other thing about grief that is extra hard is that everyone experiences emotions at different times, so you cannot expect others in your life who are also grieving the same loss with you to be at the same place with you emotionally.
Many friends also will want to know how to help you, but won’t know how because they have not experienced loss themselves.
Become more direct in asking for what you need from these friends and family relationships. People want to be there for you, even when they don’t know how to be.
And be open to accepting support from those unexpected people in your life who may have also lost people and who understand grief a bit more personally.
Listen More Than You Speak
Valentina Dragomir, Psychotherapist and Founder of PsihoSensus
Having been a psychotherapist for the past six years, I’ve come across many people who were grieving – and I can tell you that what someone might find helpful to hear, some other people might not.
For example, I said this to two different people and they responded differently: “I am sorry for your loss and that you are going through this.” One person appreciated it, the other didn’t. And that is OK.
Losing a loved one or anything else of high value or importance is very difficult for everyone.
I believe there is no standard for what to say to someone who is grieving.
What I found very useful is to acknowledge the feelings and let the person who is going through grief know that you are there for them, and ask if there is anything you can help with.
Some people might feel very overwhelmed and might need support in one form or another.
Most of all, listen more than you speak. Give space and allow the person who is grieving to share how they feel without wanting to fix their emotions.
Grief is not something we can fix or solve for anyone. The only healthy way to deal with grief is through it, and having someone that can offer support is very important.