One of the most difficult things to navigate is feeling the urge the comfort someone in your life who is grieving, while at the same time having absolutely no idea what to say.
If you reach for a common phrase that people use when talking about death, you can feel as if you are offering insincere or awkward platitudes. But if you deviate from the tried and true, you might worry about saying the wrong thing or accidentally coming off as insensitive.
Know that you are not alone. Even though grief is something most of us confront at some point in our lives, we all struggle with knowing what to say and what to avoid saying.
Every person grieves differently, and each may find various kinds of approaches comforting and helpful. There is certainly no simple or unified answer to the question of what to say to someone in grief, but there are some general considerations that can help guide you toward the right words.
In particular, there are some types of comments that can actually make people in grief feel worse. Keep these in mind when you want to effectively communicate your desire to offer love, support, and understanding at such a difficult time.
And remember, you do not have to say a lot—it is more important that you convey your sincerity and empathy. Tone, body language, and other nonverbal means of communication are thus at least as important as saying any particular string of words.
Comments that begin with the words “at least” (or express similar sentiments) are sometimes known as bright-side statements. These are remarks like, “You’re lucky that your mother is still with you,” “Be grateful for what you have,” or “Life goes on.”
The intention behind such a statement is generally a benevolent one—the speaker wants to help the person cheer up by turning their attention to the positive. But what they are really doing is attempting to relieve their own discomfort at the griever’s pain by making a sad situation seem less sad.
In truth, telling someone in pain that their pain could have been worse doesn’t help the person at all. It trivializes their feelings, and may make them think that their sadness is not valid or should not be expressed.
Instead of making this kind of statement, try opening up space for the person to talk about their loss, if they want to. Say things like: “Your sister was so special; I miss her too,” or “You can talk about your father as much as you like.”
Try not to project your own experience of loss onto the other person. Avoid saying things like: “When my father died, I was such a mess.” Sometimes when we are not sure what to say, we try to relate to another person’s experience by talking about ourselves. To someone in grief, however, this can feel like a dismissal of their pain.
The truth is, there is no way to know how that person feels about their loss. Loss is so personal, and the effort to relate inevitably comes off as superficial. Instead, share a joyful memory of the person, or invite the bereaved to tell you about their loved one, if they so desire.
This one is fairly straightforward: Unless they ask you for advice, just don’t give any. Unsolicited advice like “You should get out more,” or “Exercise will help,” or “Try to stay positive” can make someone feel judged for their normal reaction to grief.
Remember, they have to live through the pain in order to heal. You want to see them doing better, of course, but you cannot force them to get there faster by giving suggestions. Instead, you can say affirming things that remind them that what they are feeling is totally valid and they don’t need to do anything but grieve in their own way. For example, “Listen to your body,” or “Move at your own pace.”
People who are going through loss often note that many of their friends will come to them soon after their loved one has died and say things like “Let me know if you need anything,” or ask “Can I help?” And then they generally do not follow up at all. To the griever, this feels disingenuous, as if they were offering help as a way of discharging their obligation to give comfort and condolences, but had no intention of actually helping out.
What’s more, this kind of vague offer puts the burden of reaching out on the bereaved, as they now need to ask the friend for the help they need. Instead, usually the most meaningful thing you can do is to offer hands-on help in specific ways: “I’m always here for you; I will call you to check in later,” “I’ll come over and bring groceries,” “Let me come over on Wednesday and cook dinner.”
Saying “Let me know if you need anything” puts the burden of reaching out on the bereaved person, as they now need to ask the friend for the help they need.
Loss always comes with stressful organizational and administrative tasks. Your friend might not be able to ask for help with these, but they will often need it. If you have the kind of relationship where these kinds of offers are appropriate, then saying, “What can I do to help you clean out the apartment?” or “I can go to the bank with you to sort out paperwork” will go a long way.
Even if you know that the person is religious, it’s still better to steer clear of religious statements. A person’s relationship with faith is deeply personal, especially when it comes to faith and loss. No matter how religious someone is, “It’s what God wanted,” or even “They’re in a better place now,” is just another version of a bright-side comment and can have exactly the wrong effect.
The grieving person may indeed find comfort in their faith at this time, but they may just as easily be struggling with it, and it is best to avoid expressing your sympathies through the lens of religion. Instead, focus on honoring their loved one’s life and their qualities: “He was such a wonderful man,” or “She spread happiness wherever she went.”
In our effort to relate to the person, it is very easy to slip into saying things like “You’re doing so well,” “They wouldn’t have wanted you to feel sad,” or even “I know how you feel.” The truth is, you don’t actually know any of these things, and assuming you do will make the person feel misunderstood.
Many people also assume that someone who is grieving will only want to talk about their grief, which is certainly not always the case—everyone needs a break from the heaviness sometimes. Follow the person’s cues, and don’t linger on the subject if it seems like they are asking you to help take their mind off of it for now.
It should go without saying, but there is no world in which judging someone helps them in their grief. Comments like “You should be over it; it’s been a year already,” “You look like you need to get more sleep and eat more,” or “I thought you’d be more upset” are never okay. They are very hurtful statements, yet grieving people hear them all the time.
Grief is an individual journey for everyone, and there is no right way to grieve. Comments like these—even if they come from a place of wanting to help—often make the person feel bad about how they are grieving. Instead, restrict yourself to affirming those coping mechanisms that the grieving person has told you they are pursuing. For example, “I’m so glad you’ve started grief counseling.”
This list is by no means exhaustive, and of course, everyone is different—one person might find comfort in a comment that another would find offensive. Use your best judgment based on what you know about the grieving person.
In general, whether you are a close friend, family member, coworker, or acquaintance, make sure to treat them with patience and understanding. Finding the right words in this delicate situation can feel like a challenge, but imagine yourself in the grieving person’s shoes and let your actions and words speak from that place of empathy.
Painful as it is, we all experience loss at some point in our lives. Kind, thoughtful, and meaningful words and actions from friends and family go a long way to help us through the twists and turns of grief ●
Grief isn’t a feeling. It’s a process. Everyone experiences it differently, and you are the only one who can feel your feelings. But some understanding may help you come to grips with what you are going through.