What to say to someone who’s 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.

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.

Please share your stories of offering comfort or experiencing discomfort with grief. Let’s learn from each other.

9 Responses to What to say to someone who’s grieving

  1. Uma, thanks for the great tips … very, very helpful. And you’re right, many of us weren’t taught how to grieve or how to engage and comfort those who are grieving. Thanks again!

  2. I remember when I lost my son, grief was something hard to come by when not many were willing to give the space needed to absorb the event. Most people don’t know how to handle it, much less show that support. Awesome post! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Thank you for your appreciation. Grief is so awkward for most people. Either they hide, or say something inappropriate. Their intentions in voicing feelings are noble; oftentimes they, and we, have never been tutored in how to express sympathy when confronted with a painful loss.

  3. What a great post. I am experiencing this first hand since Vic’s passing. Barely a month later people are expecting me to move on…carry on as if my precious child never existed. I HATE hearing “I Know how you feel” I just look and smile and think “Damm you – you don’t!! Your child is alive. Mine is dead. Everything in my life has changed.” People have stopped reading my blog…already they cannot handle my grief. Thank you Uma.

    • Thanks, Tersia. I’m happy you feel connected to this post in some way. It used to drive me nuts how people expected me to count my blessings and move on when I lost my mother and the pain was raw. I know now that my grief made them uncomfortable. If I felt better, they could feel better. And when you’re grieving, you don’t have the emotional energy to understand or forgive. But there will come a time when you understand why people say and do the things they do. Until then, stick close to people who feel safe and can handle your needs.

 

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