Grief is awful, but it can also be awkward. If someone you know is grieving, it can be hard to know what to say — or perhaps more importantly, what not to say — to them. Of course, your intentions are good and you want to make things better, not worse. Here’s what you need to know.
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?
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 or know is grieving, words never seem to be enough. Expressing your care and support, though, could do a world of good for both the other person and yourself.
Though some pay may say that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to help someone grieve, there are definitely things you can say that can do some damage — even inadvertently. Lifehacker spoke with several mental health experts and those familiar with bereavement to find the best approach for this awkward and tough situation we unfortunately all experience.
What to avoid saying
Some phrases and words of advice, even if they’re well-intentioned, could make others feel worse and magnify their grief. In general, try to avoid:
Comparing their loss to yours: When someone dies, it makes us think about our own experiences, but saying “I know exactly 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, like you’re trying to minimise the pain he or she is feeling.
Andrew Moore, a licensed professional counsellor at the University of Oklahoma HSC, tells Lifehacker that even if there are similarities to your experiences, their experience is still unique to them. Every death is also unique. According to clinical social worker Stuart Strauzer, a more appropriate response may be to acknowledge — without direction and empathy — that this is a difficult time, e.g., “This must be very difficult, and I can’t truly understand what it must be like right now.” 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 or, at the very least, not meaningful. Joanna Parker, MA, CT, LPC of Duke University Medical Centre has provided us with Duke’s 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.”
Also, avoid saying things like, “at least they’re with their husband/wife/father/mother/child in heaven.” Again, the grieving person may not believe in heaven and either way, this isn’t helpful.
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 — I can’t believe people actually say this, but it’s on the Duke handout — “You’re young enough to have more children.”
Contacting them about funeral/wake/memorial arrangements: This should go without saying, but when a person loses someone they’re close to, try not to bother them by asking about the arrangements for the deceased. Chances are they’re swamped planning the service, cancelling phone plans and closing bank accounts and answering a simple question you could answer yourself via a Google search for an obituary isn’t fair to them.
If you can’t find an obituary — or it hasn’t been posted yet — you can contact a friend of the family who may be at least a little more removed from the situation and can help you.
Telling them to look on the “bright side”: When someone close to you dies, you probably aren’t seeing a bright side, so having someone tell you to look on it is not at all helpful. Examples of “brightsiding” can include: “at least s/he isn’t in pain anymore,” or “think of all the other wonderful things you have in your life right now.”
Both may be well-intentioned, but both should be avoided. Of course you’re glad your loved one is not in physical pain, but someone pointing that out isn’t going to make you feel better. And sure, you might have just started a new, great job or have an exciting trip planned, but again, pointing out the positives in someone’s life isn’t as helpful as you think it is.
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 tells Lifehacker:
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.
Also, don’t give the person a grieving timeline, saying “oh, you’ll feel better in two weeks.” Even if that was your own experience with grief, that doesn’t mean it translates to others. Not only that, but it puts pressure on them to feel as though they need to heal in a set timeframe.
Along the same lines, it’s not helpful to tell someone that losing a loved one will “hit you when you least expect it.” Saying that not only minimises their current state of grief, but also tells them that it’ll get worse at some point in the future, which isn’t what they need to hear.
What you can say to help
Be authentic in your expressions of compassion, Moore advises, 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 when I was just a kid out of college and one of my biggest supporters. I’m not sure if it helped them, but probably most families would appreciate your recognising their loved one and their loss.
“I’ll call/text 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.
But please, please don’t repeatedly check in with the person, demanding — or even expecting — a response. One way to do this is by sending a text saying, “I just wanted to get in touch to see how you’re doing and let you know I’m thinking of you. I know you’re dealing with a lot, so please don’t feel obligated to respond.”
“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. It gave her permission to mourn and flounder if she needed to — and breathe.
Acknowledging that grieving can be a potentially long process may be helpful to the person, along with saying things like, “take all the time you need.”
What may or may not be appropriate to say
“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 — provided you ask when you both have time to really talk (or, in your case, listen).
Depending on the circumstances and your relationship with the other person too, this could be a terrible question. A few years ago when my friend passed away, I asked his mum how she was feeling — out of sheer not knowing what else to say — and 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.
Chances are, if someone just lost a loved one, they’re not OK — and that’s OK. And they probably are sick of either a) telling people exactly that; or b) pretending they’re fine. So you’ll have to use your best judgement when deciding whether or not to ask a grieving person how they’re doing and proceed with caution.
Express yourself in other ways
Although fumbling for something to say is better than ignoring the topic (Light-Gallagher says sometimes people would just look at her and not say a word, so she learned to start small talk to ease the tension), sometimes your presence is all that matters. If you’re speechless, sometimes that’s exactly the right thing to say — nothing, Strauzer says.
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.
You can also send them gift cards for food delivery services like Grubhub or Seamless, or car services like Uber and Lyft. And there’s always cash or Venmo; even the most basic funerals are expensive as hell, so if the grieving person footed the bill for that, they may appreciate that type of support.
If they’re not the type of person who needs funds for themselves, you can consider donating money to a charity in the deceased’s name — whether it’s related to the cause of their death to something else they would have appreciated.
Finally, remember that everyone feels awkward during these situations; the most important thing you can do, still, is to express your sympathy and give the bereaved a chance to talk or ask for help if they need it. And because death has a “ripple effect” on the people around the deceased, be sure to take care of yourself, too.
This story was originally published on 9/6/12 and was updated on 9/17/19 to provide more thorough and current information.