How to talk to bereaved families

5 min read

Many people do not have their normal capacity for social awareness when they are in the throes of grief. The emotions that come with the loss of a loved one can be unexpected and uncontrollable. And yet grieving families are called upon to make various arrangements—funeral planning, estate administration, claiming benefits—whether they are emotionally ready or not. This can create awkward situations in which service providers (and others who are neither family nor friend) must interact with the bereaved while they are in the intensest stages of grief.

If you find yourself in such an encounter, you should of course lead with empathy and compassion. But it’s also helpful to have some understanding of how to speak to a griever, how to establish appropriate boundaries while still being sensitive to their feelings, and how to prepare for the possibility that raw emotions may be on display.

What not to do/say 

When your role is to help a bereaved person with a practical task, it’s important to be aware of their boundaries as well as your own. Even if it comes from a place of compassion, you could overstep and inadvertently say something that might make them feel worse. Remember, everyone deals with grief in their own unique way, and so you can never assume you know what someone else needs to hear during this vulnerable moment.

At the same time, when your role is not to offer emotional support to the bereaved but to help them with a practical task, you should also be aware of protecting your own boundaries. The situation requires a delicate balance of empathy and professionalism.

While you should make space for the grieving person or family to express their feelings in any way that relates to the task at hand or the subject under discussion, it’s up to you to set a professional boundary. This doesn’t mean acting harshly or without compassion—always approach the bereaved with sensitivity. However, you are not there to be a therapist or counselor. You can and should offer some comforting and empathetic words at the beginning of the conversation—a simple “I’m so sorry for your loss, I know this is a very difficult time” is sufficient—but after that, don’t dwell on their loss. Instead move the conversation toward the practical matters you are there to help with. 

Remember that your body language and tone of voice are just as important as the actual words you say. This can be an uncomfortable position for some people, and that discomfort can be read loud and clear in body language, so make sure to check yourself. Are you avoiding their eyes, looking down at your hands or your desk? Eye contact is an important way to show that you are fully listening—which is the most empathetic thing you can do for a grieving person.

Maintain eye contact and use a gentle but firm tone when you are speaking. Make sure to speak a little more slowly than you might usually, and offer to repeat yourself if anything is unclear—it’s extra difficult to concentrate when you are grieving. Being a good listener, making eye contact, and gently but firmly imparting the information you need to give them is the most appropriate way to help them while showing your compassion for their situation.

There is no need to bring up or ask about any details about the bereaved’s loved one unless they pertain directly to the conversation. While some people try to talk about their own experiences with grief to make the grieving person feel a sense of solidarity, this can come off as insensitive. Comments like “I remember when my mom passed away” may seem helpful, but often sound like an attempt to make the conversation about you and not them. Again, the rule of thumb is to let them take the lead and not bring up the loss unless they do. 

When tears start to flow

If the grieving person does bring up the loss, whether it’s relevant to your conversation or not, they are likely to get emotional. It’s normal for them to start crying; it certainly does not mean that you’ve done anything wrong. This situation can be tricky to navigate, however, since you don’t know the person well and don’t know their grief triggers. Remain calm and collected, and make space for them to express their grief. If you are not a friend, it is not your role to offer them a hug. Use your best judgment about what is appropriate—maybe it is fitting to put your hand over theirs, for example. But err on the side of caution; if your gesture is not what they need at this moment, they may end up feeling worse.

You also shouldn’t just ignore the fact that they are crying, however, and push on with the matter at hand. Wherever you are in the conversation, hit pause. If you have tissues nearby, offer them. Let the person know that it’s OK to cry and that they can take a little break if needed. You can even suggest that you might leave the room for a few minutes if they would like a moment to reset. (If you’re speaking to them over the phone or video call, you can offer to take a break.) Try to stay consistent with your body language and tone of voice: While the grieving person may not be able to control their emotions, you can, and that in itself is comforting. When they’re ready, start the conversation where you left off, letting them know that the option to take a break is still always available to them. 

Of course, there is no one way to approach a professional conversation with a grieving person. Grief affects everyone differently, and it’s impossible to predict how any one person will react to it. That said, it’s useful to prepare yourself for potential scenarios so that you’re less likely to be caught off guard. Remember that this is an exceptionally difficult time for people. Trust your instincts, and act with professionalism and care