There’s no denying how difficult knowing what to say to someone who has lost a loved one can be. You’re coming from a well-intentioned place of wanting to offer support, not cause additional harm, and yet, too often the desire to console results in the bereaved person taking on the added emotional labor of offering the support to others who are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say.
“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.
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 may 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.”
7 things not to say to someone who lost a loved one
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.”
3 go-to prompts 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.”
To convey ongoing support, 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.
Tangible ways to offer support beyond the things you say
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 suffered a loss. 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.
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