Dear Lifehacker, This year has been a very difficult one for me. A close friend passed away and a few other people I know also lost loved ones. I never know what to say or how to act at times like these. What can I say when nothing seems appropriate or it all sounds like cliches?Signed, Stumbling for Words
We’re sorry to hear that. It’s hard not to feel at a loss for words when someone you care about is grieving. But expressing your care and support could do a world of good for both the other person and yourself.
While there’s really no “right” or “wrong” way to help someone grieve, some things might be better to say than others. I spoke with several mental health experts and those familiar with bereavement to find the best approach for this awkward and tough situation we all have to experience at some point.
What to Avoid Saying
Some words, even if they’re well-intentioned, could make others feel worse and magnify their grief. In general, try to avoid the following:
Comparing their loss to yours: When someone dies, it makes us think about our own experiences. But saying “I know just how you feel — when my mother/friend/dog died last year…” isn’t comforting. Even though you’re trying to help or connect by empathising, it might feel insulting to the other person, as if you’re trying to minimise the pain he or she is feeling. Andrew Moore, a counsellor at the University of Oklahoma HSC, says that even if there are similarities with your experiences, their experience is still unique to them. Every death is also unique. A more appropriate response may be to acknowledge — without direction and empathy — that this is a difficult time. “This must be very difficult, and I can’t truly understand what it must be like right now” is one example you can use, according to clinical social worker Stuart Strauzer. Then give more comforting words or gestures of support (see below).
Talking about the afterlife or adding religious remarks: Unless you know and share the other person’s beliefs, saying things like “he’s in a better place now” or citing Bible verses could really be offensive. Duke University Medical Center’s Bereavement Services has a handout of helpful and less helpful phrases. In the less helpful section: “It was God’s will” and “God never gives us more than we can handle”.
Minimising the person’s pain or trying to “fix” the pain: Other unhelpful remarks include: “We all have to deal with loss”, “Time heals all wounds”, “Things always work out for the best” and even extremely inappropriate things like “You’re young enough to have more children.”
Telling them how to feel or how they will feel: Again, everyone processes the loss of a loved one differently. Saying “you shouldn’t feel that way” could make the other person feel ashamed or guilty. Clinical psychologist Jeffrey DeGroat writes:
The process of grief is complicated and involves many feelings: sadness, anger, anxiety, and guilt, just to name a few. So, while you may be experiencing sadness, someone else may be experiencing anger. Rather than trying to tell this other person not to be angry, simply encourage them to discuss their thoughts and feelings, while also expressing your thoughts and feelings to them.
What You Can Say To Help
Be authentic in your expressions of compassion, says Moore, however simple they may be. What you say does not matter as much as how you say it. Here are a few good fallbacks:
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Yes, it’s completely unoriginal, but that doesn’t really matter here. If you knew the person who passed away, you could add in meaningful memories. When my previous boss died this year, I told his family, whom I was also close to, how he had been my mentor and biggest supporter when I was just a kid out of university. I’m not sure if it helped them, but most people would appreciate their loved one and their loss being recognised.
“I’ll call you in a few days to see how you’re doing.” This and other offers to help (“Is there anything I can do for you?” or “I’m here for you if you need anything”) simply remind the person that you care and will continue to do so.
“It’s OK to be lost for a while. You don’t have to have the answers right now.” Samantha Light-Gallagher, whose husband was killed in the line of duty in 2010, says this was one of the many things people said that helped her at the time. I think it gave her permission to mourn and flounder if she needed to — and breathe.
What May Or May Not Be Appropriate To Say
“How did he/she die?” We naturally want to find out if the death was unexpected or expected. Moore says this is because “we can unconsciously calculate the perceived risk of that happening to us” and also because we’re curious creatures. I personally feel this might not be an appropriate question, but it may depend on your relationship to the family.
“How are you?” This simple question gives the bereaved space to tell their story, says Moore. You have to be mindful when you use it though. For people close to you who you think would like to talk about their situation and feelings, this would be great so long as you ask when you both have time to really talk and listen. But depending on the circumstances and your relationship with the other person, this could be a terrible question. A few years ago, when my friend passed away, I asked his mum how she was feeling because I didn’t know what else to say. The look on her face has haunted me ever since. That look — the one of a parent who just lost her child — is one I hope you never see.
Express Yourself in Other Ways
Although fumbling for something to say is better than ignoring the topic, sometimes your presence is all that matters. If you’re speechless, says Strauzer, saying nothing could be exactly the right thing to do.
Acknowledge the loss and show your support in other ways. You could offer to bring dinner over one night or do grocery shopping, help with childcare or other errands. A simple hug might do.
Finally, remember that everyone feels awkward during these situations; the most important thing you can do is to express your sympathy and give the bereaved a chance to talk or ask for help. Death has a “ripple effect” on the people around the deceased, so be sure to take care of yourself too.
Special thanks to Andrew Moore, LPC of the University of Oklahoma HSC; Joanna Parker, MA, CT, LPC of Duke University Medical Center; Stuart Strauzer, LCSW; Jeffrey DeGroat, LP; and Samantha Light-Gallagher, author of Crazy Courage.