There are hundreds, if not thousands of articles, blogs and lists of what to say and what not to say to someone who is grieving. In nearly every grief group we facilitate the topic of, “I can’t believe he/she said that…” comes up.
Why is it that when we are supporting someone who is grieving, we cannot figure out what to say and when we are grieving we are often offended by what people say, despite the hundreds of quotes, phrases and advice columns?
The answer? It’s so much what we say, but how we say it. Words matter, and we will include a list of guidance around what to, and not to, say to someone who is grieving. It is important we remember, that what matters most is intent and presence.
One support group member recently explained that an extended family member said the exact same phrase as his closest friend, “I’m sorry for your loss”. He felt offended by the extended family member and comforted by his closest friend. Why is this? His extended family member was chippy, short and trying to get out of the conversation at a crowded event. His closest friend had come by the house to bring dinner, was standing on the front porch and present, willing to just drop dinner off or stay to talk. The same phrase had a significantly different feel and tone. The words mattered less than the intent.
When we grieve, many people experience a depth of vulnerability we have not experienced before. When we experience depths of emotions, we may experience decreased tolerance for surface level conversation, meaningless relationships and empty promises and offers. So when we are talking with someone who is grieving, it requires we give of ourselves, to start with a willingness to be with someone in the depth of emotions. If we are unable or unwilling to be vulnerable, ourselves, it is likely our responses to someone who is grieving will be meaningless or even offensive.
When responding to someone who is grieving, some important things to remember:
- Ditch the script, be a person. There is no need to put on a tough face, an act or play the role of someone you think you should be. Be you.
- Follow the grieving person’s lead. Be aware of cues to if someone wants to talk or would prefer to be left alone. When in doubt, don’t guess, ask.
- Acknowledge the situation. It’s ok to say, “I haven’t seen you since _____ passed”. “I want to be supportive and don’t know what to say.”
- Don’t offer anything you aren’t actually willing to give. If you offer to bring dinner, get together or help with something, be willing to follow through. Otherwise it will feel like another empty promise or loss.
- Know that, many times, words aren’t effective. Acknowledge the reason you are having trouble finding words is because they don’t exist. Silence and simply sitting with someone can be more powerful than words.
- I’m so sorry this has happened to you.
- There are no words
- Tell me more about…
- I’m just really sorry you’ve had to go through this
- You can talk to me about (person’s name)
- Do you want to talk or would you like me to sit with you?
- I don’t know what to say, but I will listen.
What Not to Say:
- Any statement that begins with “At least…
- he/she lived a long life
- is at peace
- is in a better place
- is no longer suffering
- you have another child…can still get married again…you had so many good years…
- I know how you feel
- God wanted him/her with Him
- Be strong
The most valuable thing we can do for those who are grieving is to listen, to offer genuine and helpful support, and to let them know that we are here for them without judgment or dismissiveness.
Thank you for helping take care of others who are grieving.
By: Jenn Flaum, MBA, LCSW