Ask LH: What Can I Say That's Actually Helpful In Times Of Grief?

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

Dear Stumbling,

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.

Sincerely Lifehacker

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.


    Lots of good advice, but never, ever say one piece of advice,
    "This must be very difficult, and I can’t truly understand what it must be like right now"
    1. It sounds ingratiating
    2. It makes the person feel isolated (no one understands or relates to me)
    3. (may be just me) it always reminds me of the bulldust that an expert would say - someone who read the textbook but has no damn clue.
    From personal experience, I almost smacked someone for saying that line.
    The other thing that can work is talking about the good things about that person "remember when you said she ..." and that noone is truly gone if they live in your heart and your memories.
    But avoid that smarmy line. I'd expect it from a card shark.

      Can't agree more, it sounds so manufactured that it would be totally out of place in a real situation.

    Often the right thing to say is nothing, but most grieving people just want someone to be there with them, even if it's just for a short while. When my grandma died we took my mother to feed the ducks with my kids and she thanked me for adding something positive to her otherwise negative day.

    I work in the funeral industry... Im hopeless at this part. Luckily I work in the mortuary 90% of the time. I'm taking on the "I'm sorry for your loss" line as my current "My condolences" sound cold and formal. Thanks LH

    Having known too many parents who have lost their children to cancer, I'd tell people to not ignore the loss. The worst thing for someone who has lost their child is to have others not say anything at all. Or to ask them how they/things are and then backing away when they don't give you the cursory "fine" answer you're expecting.

    No matter what you say it wont be the right thing. Just try not to be a tool about it so your friend can come for support when they're ready.

    Don't ask how it happened, I've actually lost friends because they were too useless to deal with how dramatic the genuine answer to that question was. Just don't ask.

    I've always thought it best to not apologise. Saying I'm sorry sounds insincere to my mind, then everything else after it means nothing. I'm more a fan of:
    * "OK - tell me what you need from me",
    * "I'm here to help and support you when you feel ready",
    * "I need you help with ",
    * "You, me, golf course, 7am on Saturday".
    The above depend on who the person is, and at what stage in the greiving process they are in. But in general I go along the lines of:
    * Don't apologise,
    * Don't say nothing,
    * Don't ignore what happened,
    * Offer to help with whatever they need,
    * See if there is something distracting you can do.

    Oh, and bring a plate of something when you visit. Depending on the occasion and the relationship, it could be a huge home-made lasagna to throw in the fridge/ freezer, it could be a plate of pastries if you don't know the person too well, or it could be a couple of favourite, expensive chocolates.

    And bring a gift. Flowers are great, until the person is left alone after the funeral with a room full of dead flowers to clean up. Candles or a little collectable are a better choice. They will be there after a month, or a year - and could be very important to the person to remember in the future.

    Lol - and finally, don't ignore them after the event. Call them, or pop round and see them regularly.

      "I'm sorry for your loss" is not an apology. "Sorry" is actually expressing sorrow. So the phrase "I'm sorry for your loss" is actually saying that you feel sorrow.
      In today's language, everyone just says "sorry" to apologise, but in reality should only really be applied if they are sorrowful for something they are apologising for.

        ^ This. I never thought of "Sorry for your loss" as actually being an apology. It's like when you say you feel sorry for someone, you're expressing sympathy, not apologising.

          Now I can't stop thinking about this IT Crowd scene...

    "Talking about the afterlife or adding religious remarks"
    When my father died the priest at the church where we held the funeral actually told us that since our family didn't believe in god my father was in hell! What a nice way to comfort someone. I was only ten at the time, had I been older though I'd have punched that bastard out

    When you look at the stages of grief, you realize that you go through them when you experience all kinds of loss (like a relationship, or a job) the above advice applies to these situations too.

    You cannot change people. People will always react/grieve differently to a death in their own circles or in someone else's. The most important thing is to talk about it openly. (permitting the person in grief wants to talk about it, which is usually all they want: For them to be heard in their time of need).

    I have experienced death of loved ones and friends a few times already, and the one thing I really hate is when people start to take the 'taboo' approach. Not talking about the life and death of the person who has just died with the relatives of that person. ' ooo death is something that will upset him!' or 'no don't say anything because you might say something that is not appropriate. So lets all keep quiet! And just say stuff like 'my condolences'...


    Seriously. If you open up to the person who has just lost a loved one, and remember all
    the good times they and you might have had with eachother, you start to talk about
    loads of other things during their time here on earth. Fun times. Bad, sad times, but mostly the
    fun times. Sure it is sad to talk about death..

    But not saying anything at all.. Just makes you look like a complete arse.
    And it will come back to you eventually.

    Just say this:

    We are only a telephone call away.

    Having recently gone through this myself, There isn't much people can say that will help especially in the first week of this kind of news. The best thing people can do is offer to help you with other things in life, like house stuff, cleaning, getting dinner so forth. Because until your brain has processed the initial shock, words do not help.

    Last edited 19/06/13 3:32 pm

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