What to Say to Those in Grief [The Essentials]

It can be difficult to know what to say to those in grief. Don't give up hope. There are phrases to avoid, and words that can comfort.

Do not say anything that implies limits on the duration or intensity of grief. Grief is unique for each person. Who can say how another's loss should be experienced?

Avoid catchwords such as, "Time heals all." They sound contrived are often untrue. For example, time does not necessarily heal grief.

Never say to the bereaved, "I know how you feel." Keep the conversation focused on their loss, not yours.

Never say that a death is "God's will." One may wonder why God would bring about such horror as the death of a precious loved one. Leave the topic of God's will out of expressions of sympathy unless the bereaved person brings it up.

"You are doing so well" is another phrase to avoid. Do you live in that person's head or heart? For all you know he or she may look okay but be contemplating suicide. Don't push your expectations on the bereaved. Allow them their grief. Do not say, "Be brave" or "Be strong." Who cares about bravery when faced with such essential questions as, "My child is dead. Should I live or die?"

"Others have lived through it and so can you." Someone who has just lost his or her loved one might feel so close to death already that he or she is pushed over the edge by this statement.

Avoid talking about "stages of grieving." It isn't appropriate to saddle someone with the expectation that grief occurs in pre-defined stages, with an ultimate outcome of acceptance.

"Grieving is a process" sounds cold and mechanical, and leaves no room for unexpected, spontaneous experiences of grief that do not conform to any preset theory but may be essential in learning to live with one's grief.

Be assured, though: you can effectively offer comfort to those in grief.

It's often okay if the wrong words come out. Most grieving individuals have been in your shoes at some point. They often realize you are trying to be helpful, and will accept the positive thought behind the words.

If no words come out at all, a hug or handshake can work wonders.

Sometimes, simple statements are the best. For example: "Margaret, I am so terribly sorry that Jim died, and I miss him like crazy."

Reflections on spirituality and philosophy may be too challenging and should be avoided unless the person in mourning expresses an interest.

Speak from the heart. An expression of your own feelings can provide genuine comfort. This may not seem easy, especially if you do not share the bereaved person's sorrow over his or her loss.

Look inside yourself to a time when you experienced a loss, and think about what you would have liked people to say. Remember how you felt when your loved one passed away. As you remember the hurt of your own loss, it may allow you to feel genuine sympathy for the person you are comforting.

You won't feel exactly what the sufferer feels, but the sense of loss in general, and the feeling of real sorrow, will help guide you toward authentic expressions of caring support. It will even be reflected in your body language. Do talk about the person who has died, if it seems appropriate. Family and friends of the bereaved can be reluctant to mention the name of the deceased, because they are afraid of upsetting the person in grief. But often, those who have lost a loved one adore talking about that person.

Consider offering to do whatever you reasonably can to help.

"Sid, Janet is going to watch the kids for you and I'll take care of the lawn."

You may offer support in a variety of ways, but be prepared to back up what you say. Try to determine what sort of help is realistic to provide.

There are many ways of offering sanctuary and showing support. Resources are available, not just for the bereaved, but also for caregivers, support workers, and the general public.

Resources are available here at Friends Along the Road.

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Copyright © 2012 by David Dell Pierce, Jr. Some Rights Reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Copy and distribute freely if noncommercially, unchanged, with attribution, and including this notice.