Last Updated on February 28, 2020
If you know someone who has suffered a loss, and you’re looking for what to say to someone who is grieving, here are seven helpful suggestions from Goings, Graces. These quotes are taken from the thoughtful post entitled, “What to say when there is nothing to say.”
1. Say something
Expressing something in words to the grieving person is better than not saying anything:
In cases of tragic or devastating loss, there is nothing actually helpful to say. You can’t help, in the deepest sense, because you can’t change what happened. But that does not mean there is nothing to say. Saying something is almost always better than saying nothing. If you are physically present with the sufferer, and your own tears are flowing down your face, they can speak for you. But in any other circumstance, your bereaved friend will not know you are weeping with him unless you tell him so. Sometimes all you need to say is, “I am so sorry. I am crying with you.” But those small words are utterly, infinitely better than silence.
2. Sympathy, not sermons
Don’t try to guess what someone who is grieving wants to hear, and certainly don’t offer up what you think they should hear. There may be a time for such things, but it is not now. During the initial stages of the grieving process, simple tokens of heartfelt sympathy are best:
The most touching things that have been said to me have always been expressions of sympathy. When you enter into conversation with a person who has suffered a huge loss, you need to limit your expectations. Don’t expect to help, comfort, or encourage. Simply aim to show the person that you care.
The best gifts you can give your friend are your presence, your tears, and your words of sympathy and compassion: “I’m so sorry.” “I am imagining what this must feel like for you and I don’t fully understand, but I think it must be horrible.” “I hate that this is happening to you.” “I wish that I could change this but I know I can’t. I just want to be here with you.” Words like these are small and simple, but they speak more volumes about your care than you could probably guess.
3. Seek details, not evaluations
“How are you?” can be a very difficult question for someone who is grieving. To someone who has suffered a great loss, to answer “Great!” or “Okay” or “Fine” can feel like a lie, but an honest answer (“I feel terrible” “I’m utterly depressed”) can be too overwhelming. Instead, try to ask specific questions about what they are doing:
Ask about your friend’s feelings so that you can understand them a bit better: “What has been especially hard for you this week?” “What have you been thinking about?” “I have been imagining that you might feel x; is that how you feel, or is it different?” “Did it only make you sad to go/do x, or did you also have some fun?”
Ask about specific life events and activities: how the kids’ activities are going, how she is sleeping and whether she’s remembering to eat, if she went on vacation and what she did, if she’s been reading anything good, what cute things her kids have said that week, what’s happening at work, or what TV show she’s enjoying.
And don’t be afraid, if your friend wants to talk, of asking about the loss. Has he been to the grave? Is it hard to go there? Does he like going, or dread it? Does he have bad dreams? Are there any places or things he’s avoiding because they remind him too much of the loss? These are not easy questions to ask, and are appropriate at some times and not others, but in the right setting they are thoughtful and compassionate. The experience of loss can be isolating; your sensitive questions about the details may make your friend feel just a little less alone.
4. Specific offers
If you would like to offer a grieving person help, do not say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you!” This is not helpful because it does not let the recipient know what the boundaries to your offer may be.
The most helpful offers are specific. If your friend is like me, she will probably be more helped by an offer like this: “I have two hours free on Wednesday afternoon. Can I…
– come babysit while you run an errand or take a nap?
– go to the grocery store for you?
– clean your bathrooms?
– make dinner?
– help with homework?
– mow the lawn?
– help you take the kids somewhere fun?
– __________ [fill in the blank with the options you would like to offer]?
Giving a list of a few specific ways you would be interested in helping will clarify your offer and enable your friend to tell you what would help the most.
5. Sensitivity to timing
Some truly helpful comments or offers may not be welcomed if they come at an inopportune or especially difficult time. When in doubt, ask first, and offer a way out:
This is key: sometimes your friend will feel like talking and sometimes he won’t. Give him the opportunity to make that choice. If you’re thinking of an impromptu visit, text or call first to see if it’s a good time. If you’re starting a conversation, first ask if your friend wants to talk about it just then. One of my friends said, “You mentioned before that this has been a hard week. What has made it particularly hard?—And you don’t have to talk about it right now if you don’t want to.”
6. Solidarity, not sameness
Attempting to tell someone that you know exactly what they’re going through will often have the opposite effect as intended. Understand the difference between “sameness” and “solidarity” as well as how to express your solidarity with someone who is grieving:
If I talk with another mother who has lost a child, even if that child was lost to stillbirth [as mine was], I cannot know exactly how she feels, because I am not living her life. But our profound fellow-feeling for each other transcends the difference between our losses. That solidarity can flow from a very similar experience, a quite different one, or mere unflinching imagination of how such a loss would feel. There is a touch of healing in the fact that while no one knows exactly what I feel, some people comprehend a part of it.
Provide an environment of safety, void of criticism and judgment, in the wake of a friend’s loss. Let them know that you are not going to be offended by what they say, or that you’ll try to understand why they might feel however they’re feeling without attempting to correct.
It is a great, breath-restoring gift to the hurting to be in the presence of a person who will hear whatever you feel like saying without narrowed eyes or attempts to correct you. If you want to be a friend to the hurting, make your conversation a safe place.
Read the full post here.