An unfortunate side effect of aging is we lose people we love.
There’s no getting around it. I had a big, noisy and really fun extended family for most of my life, but the numbers dwindle every year. I try to remember how lucky I am to have had so many wonderful people in my life and not focus on the losses, but it’s hard.
I’ve noticed some people seem to know just the right thing to say to provide comfort to others who are hurting. Usually those are the people who experienced loss themselves at some point in the past. Others find the situation awkward and uncomfortable. They don’t know the best things to do or say, understandably. It’s hard to know how to console people who are grieving; this skill doesn’t come naturally to most of us.
When my Mother-In-Law passed away at age 53, a well-meaning family member called my husband on the phone to express her condolences. During the conversation she said she knew exactly how he felt because her cat died the same day. Ugh. Really? Comparing his beloved mom to a cat was hurtful, though he appreciated the call and the effort. When my friend’s brother with muscular dystrophy passed away at age 16, countless people made comments like, “He lived a lot longer than anyone thought he would” or “At least you have other siblings”. Neither of these statements is comforting, though I think most of us realize people say dumb things when uncomfortable and these comments are generally coming from the right place. But sometimes it’s better to say “I’m sorry” and leave it at that.
Here is some practical advice based on my experiences – I hope it is helpful.
Don’t Make Excuses About Why You Haven’t Been in Touch.
You may be busy at work, or just feel awkward. Whatever your reason for staying away, it’s your deal. Don’t make excuses to the bereaved, and especially don’t say you didn’t contact them because you thought they wanted to be alone. You have no idea how they feel or what they want. Reaching out is always appreciated, and it’s better to make the effort than not. They can choose not to answer the phone, email or text, but they will get the message that you care. If you are unsure and uncomfortable, do it anyway. You will want others to be there for you if you find yourself in a similar situation.
“Let Me Know if You Need Anything” Is Not a Real Offer
This statement puts the onus on the person grieving to reach out to ask for help. It is a kind and probably well-intended comment, but if you really want to do something, just do it. Bring a meal, donate to a charity, send a card or email, make a phone call. People don’t like to ask for help, but sometimes need it and generally greatly appreciate when others extend themselves.
Do Not Tell Someone How They Should Grieve
Allow the mourner the freedom to grieve in a way that works for them. There are no “should’s” in this situation. Everyone grieves differently; some go to a sad, dark place, others seem simply numb, and still others keep themselves busy to avoid having to think too much. Some rid their homes immediately of memories, a stark contrast to those who insist everything stay exactly the same because they find it comforting to be surrounded by the memories. Don’t tell people what they should do or how they should behave after losing a loved one; let them do what they need to do to heal.
Don’t Talk About How Their Loss Affects You
When trying to comfort someone immediately following a death, it’s best not to bring up how you felt when you lost your loved one. This is not the time; Have those conversations another time. If you have stories of times you spent with the recently deceased, share them. Better, yet, write them down in a card so the memories can be read and reread later.
It’s Most Important That You Just Show Up
Just show up. If you don’t know what to say, offer a heartfelt hug. Simply being present is comforting in itself. If you want to offer words of support you can say, “I wish I knew what to say” or “I know how much you loved her/him”. A simple “I’m so sorry” is my personal favorite to show my respects.
Keep in mind that grief doesn’t end after the funeral – try to check in periodically, particularly during the holidays. Go out to lunch or bring dinner. Watch a move together. Six months down the road might be harder for the person grieving than immediately following the death as others moved on and the house is quiet. A few hours out of your day every so often is a wonderful gift to someone who lost a loved one.
Below are some common questions we hear often from our readers. Please add your thoughts in the comment section if you have additional advice to share.
What should I say to someone who is grieving?
Offering simple words of empathy and support can go a long way. Express your condolences, such as “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Let them know you are there for them, and don’t hesitate to say, “I’m here for you if you need anything.” Avoid clichés or phrases that minimize their pain, like “It’s all part of God’s plan” or “Time heals all wounds.”
What can I do to comfort them?
There are various ways to offer comfort. Be a good listener and let them share their feelings without judgment. Offer practical help, like running errands, cooking meals, or assisting with household chores. Sometimes, just being present and providing a comforting presence can be enough.
Is it okay to bring up their loved one who passed away?
Yes, it’s generally okay to mention the deceased and share memories or stories about them. Talking about the person who has passed away can provide an opportunity for the grieving individual to remember and honor their loved one.
How do I know if they want to talk about their grief?
Some individuals may want to talk openly about their grief, while others might find it challenging to express their feelings. Respect their space and cues. Let them know that you are available to listen whenever they feel comfortable sharing.
Should I avoid the topic of grief altogether?
It’s best not to avoid the topic of grief entirely. Acknowledge their loss and let them know that you are available to talk if they wish to. Ignoring or avoiding the subject can make the grieving individual feel isolated or that their grief is being dismissed.
Should I give them space or reach out regularly?
Everyone grieves differently, so it’s essential to gauge their needs. Some people may prefer space and privacy, while others might appreciate regular check-ins. Respect their wishes and let them know you are available whenever they need you.
How long does grief last?
Grief is a personal journey and doesn’t follow a specific timeline. It can be a lifelong process, but the intensity of grief may change over time. Avoid telling them to “get over it” or “move on.” Grieving is a natural response to loss, and everyone heals at their own pace.
Should I encourage them to seek professional help?
If you notice that their grief is overwhelming or impacting their daily life significantly, gently suggesting professional help, such as counseling or therapy, can be beneficial. However, do so with sensitivity and without judgment.
Can I share stories of my own experiences with grief?
Sharing your own experiences with grief can show that you understand and empathize with their pain. However, be cautious not to make the conversation about yourself; the focus should remain on the grieving individual and their feelings.
Remember, the grieving process is complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to comforting someone who is grieving. The key is to be understanding, patient, and supportive throughout their journey.
originally posted March 10,2020
updated July 1, 2022