What to say to someone who’s grieving? is such a dilemma for people who want to support the bereaved but often find themselves tongue-tied.
Before you read this, it may also be useful for you to know what not to say to the grieving. Given that our toolkit is sadly empty when it comes to consoling, comforting and caring for the grieving, some grief education helps. When we understand that we can make a huge difference in the life of a grieving friend, family member or neighbor, we’re motivated to make the effort to equip ourselves so we’re never at a loss for words again. Firstly, we don’t need to avoid the grieving just because we don’t know what to say or how to say it right. It’s nobody’s fault. Nobody taught us how to do it. And yet, the grieving are fragile and feel abandoned when everyone abruptly exits the lunch room or gets really busy with their cell phones when they enter the space.
What to say to someone who’s grieving? How do we help them feel supported?
Be authentic and acknowledge the elephant in the room. A simple, heartfelt “I really don’t know what to say” goes a long way in opening up the space for compassion and conversation. When you skirt around the topic, it sends out a clear signal of discomfort. That makes the griever withdraw, disengage, and shut down.
Listen without going into “fix-it” mode. It’s important to be open to the griever saying ‘I don’t want to talk about it right now’ or maintaining complete silence. Just showing up as an authentic presence and listening without an agenda is a huge gift of healing you offer the griever. When you listen in this manner, what happens is this: from the cacophony of voices inside the griever’s head, one thought after another begins to emerge. When the griever has talked and you feel they’ve been heard, validate and offer encouragement. You might say ‘You’re not alone’ or ‘You’re stronger than you think or feel right now; you’ll get through this.’ Asking ‘What can I do to help? You don’t have to tell me right now. Think about it. I’d like you to know I’m here for you’ is such an open-ended invitation to the griever.
Be consistent with your caring. Some of us may be tempted to give up when the griever doesn’t call or ask for help. Grief numbs a person. As someone who wishes to help the griever, we need to be patient. Instead of saying, ‘Gimme a call if you need any help’, make the effort to call, email, or drop a card in their mailbox. It’s also important to be specific in the way you offer caring and support. Ask questions like: ‘Can I come do your laundry this week?’ or ‘Would you like me to babysit while you go for a walk?’
A touch is worth a zillion words. Sometimes, words are so inadequate in capturing the depth of the feeling we wish to convey. In such instances, if you share a close relationship with the griever, simply wrap your arms around them and hold them. Allow them to cry or vent or just hold you.
When in doubt, use one of these expressions. An honest expression of sincerity means a lot more than an oft-trotted cliche. ‘I don’t have any words that will make this better, but I feel for you.’ ‘It’s not your fault.’ ‘I can’t imagine how you feel.’ ‘I can imagine your world is upside down.’ ‘What specifically can I do to support you?’
Most firsts are awkward. The first time you’re comforting a griever shares the same awkwardness with many other firsts. Think of your first time on a skateboard or a bicycle, your first date, your first job interview. And yet you got through it. As you did it many times over, you grew into a place of natural ease. It is the same with expressing comfort to a loved one who’s grieving. If you show up with willingness and authenticity, the griever will feel your energy and respond to it.
Instead of struggling with what to say to someone who’s grieving, try some of these tools and you’ll be so relieved to find how well they land.