“Most of us are socialized to help others by solving problems, but grief cannot be fixed,” says trauma and loss expert Gina Frieden, PhD, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Most people are also “uncomfortable with the topic,” says Katie Opher, a coordinator at Penn Medicine’s David Bradley Children’s Bereavement Program and clinical director of Camp Erin with Penn Medicine Hospice, adding, “it’s hard to talk about something that is painful for ourselves.”
As a result, Dr. Frieden says, some people will either try to avoid discussing the topic or try to offer comfort by talking about their own experience. Unfortunately, those responses aren't usually the most effective. It certainly is possible to offer effective support to folks who are grieving, though. Keep the following tips in mind for how to do so, and then get specific prompts for both what to say to someone who lost a loved one and also what to avoid saying. Plus, learn other tangible ways you can offer support.
What To Say To Someone Who Just Lost a Loved One
Don’t feel like you have to say the perfect thing to convey your support to someone who is grieving
Of course, you don't want to further upset a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one. But to save yourself from awkwardly stumbling over your words in an effort to say the exact perfect thing, remember this is a person you’ve interacted with in the past.
“Often, friends and colleagues feel a need to say just the right thing. People may fear saying something that could make the situation worse so they avoid saying anything at all.” —Gina Frieden, PhD, trauma and loss expert
“Take the pressure off yourself,” Dr. Frieden says. “Often, friends and colleagues feel a need to say just the right thing. People may fear saying something that could make the situation worse so they avoid saying anything at all.”
This lack of response, says Opher, may make the person who is grieving feel that their loss is being minimized or brushed aside. If you find yourself feeling this way, though, Opher says you can say so. Because that alone can effectively convey support. “You can say, ‘I don’t really know what to say, but I’m so sorry for your loss,’” she says. Another option: “I’m sorry this is something I can’t fix for you, but I’m here for you.”
The best way to communicate, Dr. Frieden adds, “is often just being present and validating the griever’s feelings and experience.”
Don’t feel the need to talk about the loss—but don’t go out of your way to ignore it, either.
“It’s important not to avoid the situation, but to take cues from the person,” Opher says. “They may not want to talk about it all the time.” Talking about a loss can help provide good memories, but can also make someone feel vulnerable or sad at a time they may not feel comfortable expressing those emotions.
So, how can you know how to proceed in a way that's actually helpful? Ultimately, it’s best to “take your cues from the griever,” Dr. Frieden says. “People grieve in many different ways. Some grievers might prefer to talk openly about the loss. If so, listen without trying to fix or change the subject. Just being present and acknowledging the pain is important.
3 Prompts for Something To Say To Someone Who Lost a Loved One
Dr. Frieden says that these phrases are often helpful:
- “There are no words…but know I am here for you. My heart is with you.”
- “I am thinking of you and wishing you strength through this difficult time.”
- “I know I cannot know all that you are going through, but I am with you and want to be a support in whatever way is needed.”
What Not To Say
There are a few phrases you may have heard in the past that probably won’t be received the way you hope, the experts say. Those include things like:
- “Be brave. You can push through this.”
- “Don’t cry.”
- “At least they didn’t suffer.”
- “God has a plan… .”
- “I know how you feel.”
- “This reminds me of a loss I went through….”
- “They’re out of their pain and in a better place.”
Other phrases to avoid include “everything happens for a reason.” Here’s why: “In a moment of despair, telling someone that there's a reason for their loss isn't helpful,” says Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind. “They may find their own sense of meaning over time, but saying this can sound harsh and insensitive.
Encouraging someone who is grieving to keep themselves busy is also not supportive of their grieving process. “People need to work through painful emotions to heal,” Morin says. “Distractions only delay the healing process.”
And, saying the person who has passed wouldn’t want them to be said is another phrase not to say to someone grieving. “Don't minimize someone's feelings,” Morin says. “It's okay for them to feel whatever they are feeling.”
Morin also suggests changing the way you greet someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. “Rather than asking, ‘How are you?’ as a greeting, you might say, ‘It's so nice to see you.’” she says. “You might also say, ‘I've been thinking about you,’ to let them know they're on your mind.”
How To Help Someone Who Just Lost a Loved One
1. Offer to do specific things for support
This is a big one, experts say. “Offering to coordinate plans, helping out at work, or running errands can be helpful,” Dr. Frieden says. “Bringing food and helping with childcare can ease anxiety during the initial transition after loss.”
Opher suggests being very specific about how you plan to help instead of leaving it up to your loved one to figure out what they need. “A lot of times when people say, ‘Let me know when you need help,’ the person who is grieving may not know what they need,” she says. “It can be more helpful to say, ‘Can I bring you dinner next Wednesday or mow your lawn’ or ‘I’m going to do [insert helpful thing here] for you.’”
Again, it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. But taking your cues from them and acknowledging what has happened in the right moment can go a long way toward giving them a little comfort during this tough time.
2. Check in regularly
Someone who has lost a loved one will need support beyond the initial loss, which is why Morin encourages checking in on them regularly. The ideal frequency for checking in comes down to the relationship you have with them. “A daily check-in can be appropriate for a close friend or family member,” she says. “With a more distant friend, you might check in weekly.” If you’re unsure about how often to check in on them, Morin suggests simply asking them permission to check in on them again in a week or however long they’d like to see how things are going.
Comforting someone who is grieving through text is another way to check in. “You might offer practical support by checking in with someone and asking if there's anything you can do for them,” Morin says of what to write in the text message. “If you know they're doing something that day, you might also check in with them and ask how an errand went.
3. Reach out on important dates
Another way to convey ongoing support is around significant dates like birthdays or the anniversary of the loss, Dr. Frieden suggests checking in and saying that you’re happy to talk about the loss if they feel like it. “Don’t avoid talking about the loss,” she says. You can also send a thoughtful card to let them know you’re thinking of them and haven’t forgotten the significance of their loss. “Our culture often rushes grieving, but grief is a process and takes time,” she says.
The holiday season may also be a difficult time for them. Morin encourages reaching out and asking them what would be helpful for them and letting them know what support you can provide during this time. “One person may want to continue with their former holiday traditions while someone else may want to do things differently after a loss,” she says. “Let them know what you can offer, like company on the holiday, help shopping for gifts, help decorating, or just some time away from the holiday festivities.”
4. Provide the space to just feel
According to Morin, the most supportive thing you can do to support a friend or family member who is grieving a loss is spending time with them and just providing a space for them to feel whatever emotion is coming up. “Don't try to cheer them up or make them laugh because you're uncomfortable with their sadness,” she says.
And remember that everyone grieves differently. “Not everyone will want to express their grief to you,” Morin says. For instance, someone may not feel comfortable expressing their emotions with close friends and family members who are also grieving the same loss. Conversely, someone you’re not that close to may feel comfortable opening up to you more than you’d expect.
5. Help obtain resources
If you suspect the person who lost a loved one is at risk for depression or self-harm, there are things you can do to support them. For emergency situations when their safety is concerned, Morin advises contacting an emergency number. To support them with their mental health, she encourages having a conversation with them and guiding them to find the resources they need. “Let them know that it's normal to have lots of big feelings and getting support may help,” she says. “Create a list of resources and options that include things like talking to their physician, attending a grief group, or seeing a counselor. Include contact information and phone numbers.”
And, Morin adds, support them through that process by helping schedule appointments, drive them to their appointments, or attend them alongside them if they find it helpful. The key is ensuring they know they’re in charge of their care and you’re just there to support them. “Make it clear that they are in control of what they do and you simply want them to know what the options are,” she says.
Remember: Grief Doesn’t Follow a Strict Timeline
Understanding that grief doesn’t have a timeline is also an important thing to keep in mind when you’re offering support to someone mourning a loved one. “It doesn't happen in nice, neat stages,” Morin says of grief. “Someone may mourn the loss of a loved one forever. Grief tends to change over time so someone may experience grief differently as they grow older or as things change.”
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