Losing a loved one is a devastating life event, no matter who you are and what you have been through. Whether you have been through a similar situation or not, watching a friend or family member going through the grieving process can be overwhelming, almost as if you have lost someone yourself.
Knowing what to say is probably one of the hardest parts about supporting someone who has lost someone they love. Here are some examples of things you should and should not say to someone who is grieving.
Do say: I’m sorry for your loss
Don’t say: It’s going to be okay
In the moment, the first thing that might come out of your mouth when you see someone who has just lost someone they love is some variation of, “It’s going to be okay.” Sure, this might be true. Is it actually helpful, though? Not really.
Saying things are eventually going to be fine doesn’t help someone who is grieving feel any better in the present. In fact, they are most likely thinking that things are most certainly not going to be okay without their loved one. Think of someone you love. Now imagine how you would feel if you had to suddenly live without that person for the rest of your life. Would you feel okay? Probably not.
Instead, give your condolences, but mean it. Tell them you are sorry. They are going to hear this a lot, but that does not mean it matters any less coming from you. Saying “I’m sorry” is much better than asserting unsolicited opinions, such as, “At least he/she doesn’t have to suffer anymore” or “He/She is in a better place.”
Eventually, things will get better. Deep down, someone who is grieving knows that. In the moment, though, they don’t need or want to think about that. They need to know that someone cares about what they are going through and that they are not going to be abandoned completely.
Do say: I am here for you
Don’t say: I know how you feel
No two relationships are exactly the same. Though you might want to show someone who is grieving that they are not alone, claiming to know exactly how they feel amidst their loss is not the right move to make. In fact, doing this can prove to be much more harmful than you can comprehend.
Telling someone you know how they feel makes their relationship with their loved one seem less special and unique. In reality, you might have an idea of what they might be going through because of a similar experience in your own life, but you cannot possibly identify with every single thought and emotion they are experiencing.
The trouble is, you also do not want to avoid someone who is grieving whether you have some inkling of how they are feeling or not. Someone who is going through a hard time like this needs to know they are loved. They need to be reminded, as gently as possible, that they are not alone.
There can be an even balance between keeping your distance and staying close. Simply tell the person you can be with them at a moment’s notice if they need you. This lets them know that you are available to support them, but will not pressure them into saying they want you to be there. Balance this out with anticipating what they will need without making them ask, such as telling them you will be at their house at 6 p.m. tomorrow to help them make dinner.
Believe it or not, someone who is grieving can also worry about being a burden on other people. Lift that burden from them as much as possible.
Do say: I remember when …
Don’t say: It’s time to get over it and move on
Grief does not have a time limit. You cannot rush someone into “getting over” someone they have lost. Everyone grieves differently. Just because you might have gone through a similar process before does not mean someone else will grieve in the exact same way you did. Some take more time than others.
Telling someone they should be over their loss by now doesn’t help them sort through their feelings. In fact, it can make them only that much more confused and emotional. Never tell someone to “get over it.” You would not want someone to say that to you if you were hurting.
Instead, try to help them focus on positive memories of their loved one. If you have fond or even humorous memories of the deceased person, share them. Never think that someone who is grieving does not want to remember their loved one. Focusing on good memories can really help. Even if it seems like it has been forever since the funeral, it’s never too late to reminisce.
Other ways you can help someone who is grieving
- Never underestimate the healing power of a hug.
- Sometimes not saying anything, just listening, is what helps the most.
- Never make it about you. This is the griever’s time to deal with their loss.
- Just be there. When a person loses someone they love, there is an empty space in their life. For the time being, help fill that space.
- Give suggestions only when asked directly for them. Your advice is not always welcome. If they ask your advice for things completely unrelated to grieving, like how to change a light bulb, jump at the chance to help. Some people need to figure out how to grieve the loss of their loved one in their own way.
Grief is a process. It takes time and energy, and no two people go through the process in the exact same way. Be patient, gentle and aware of how a grieving friend or family member is feeling.
Sometimes, there is no “right” thing to say. Do your best to be present and pay attention to what that person might need. Even if they do not ask for it, they still need to know you care.