Let’s be honest, it’s hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. It’s not because they are difficult to talk to or that you’re a poor conversationalist. Most of the time, our discomfort boils down to the fact that we don’t deal with death on a daily basis (and therefore, don’t have much experience with how to talk about it), and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. That’s why it can be helpful to have a plan in place when you know you’re going to offer condolences for a recent loss. To help you prepare in advance, let’s review some helpful tips and useful phrases.
Tip #1: Acknowledge their loss
Perhaps one of the most straightforward yet necessary things you can do is acknowledge their loss. They have experienced something truly heart-wrenching, and your simple acknowledgement and sympathy can go a long way.
You can choose a phrase that feels natural to you, but a few options are:
- “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
- “I heard about your dad. I’m so sorry.”
- “I can’t imagine how hard this must be. I’m so sorry.”
- “I was so sorry to hear about your loved one.”
Tip #2: Share a memory
If you had a personal connection to the person who has died, it can be sweet and meaningful to share a memory. One of the ways that we work through feelings of grief is by reminiscing about the memorable moments. Oftentimes, the grieving person may share the same story more than once, and that’s okay. It’s needed and necessary. So, sharing a story of your own, when possible, can be a perfect addition to your condolences.
A word of caution: if the grieving person seems very fragile, ask permission before sharing a story. Also, only share positive memories in your condolences. While it is important to work through any negative feelings, wait for an appropriate time. Your condolence is not the time.
Here are a few suggested phrases:
- “I remember your mom’s sense of humor. She always had us laughing.”
- “My favorite memory of your sister was when…”
- “Would it be okay if I shared a few stories with you? Things that I remember about your grandmother?”
Tip #3: Give them the opportunity to talk
If you don’t have a story to share or don’t feel comfortable doing so, you could instead provide a chance to talk. As mentioned, talking about the person who has died is a necessary part of the grieving process. Be a safe person to share with and engage in active listening.
A word to the wise: Don’t offer advice or compare their experience to your own grief experiences. You may have gone through a similar loss, but you aren’t necessarily feeling the same things. Every person grieves differently, so instead, simply listen, comfort, and be present. If they ask about your experience, then feel free to share.
A few useful phrases you could use are:
- “This must be so hard. Would you like to talk about it?”
- “I’m here to listen if you want to talk. I’d love to hear about your loved one.”
- “When I lost my mom, it helped to talk about her. I’m here to listen if you want to talk.”
- “I’m here for you.”
Tip #4: Validate their feelings
Most people try to keep their emotions under control in public settings. However, you can show extra kindness by validating, normalizing, and recognizing their feelings. Grief is hard, and really, we need to let out the emotions welling up inside. Once again, be a safe person. Don’t try to “fix it” because you can’t. Instead, offer a nonjudgmental space. Let them express what’s going on inside. Be compassionate, caring, and gracious.
What does this look like in words? Here are a few thoughts:
- “Whatever you’re feeling is okay. This is hard.”
- “You don’t have to keep it together around me. It’s okay not to be okay.”
- “I don’t know what you’re feeling, but I’m here to listen if you want to share.”
- “I wish I could make things better.”
- “I wish I had the right words to say, but please know I’m here for you.”
Tip #5: Stay away from cliches or platitudes
One thing to remember as you offer condolences is to stay away from cliches or platitudes. They are rarely helpful, and often, they feel hollow and impersonal. In some cases, they may even be harmful. For instance, saying “Everything happens for a reason” is intended to be comforting, but really, what possible reason could there be for this person’s death? Especially if it’s a sudden or unexpected death or someone who is still young.
Here are some phrases to STAY AWAY from:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “Look at what you have to be thankful for.”
- “It’s part of God’s plan.”
- “He’s in a better place now.”
- “At least…” (…you can get married again, you had time together, you can have more children)
- “This is behind you now. It’s time to get on with your life.”
Tip #6: Take supportive action
Following a loss, it can be hard to keep up with the everyday things. Grief takes a lot of time and emotional headspace. In fact, it’s not uncommon to forget things when you’re grieving. That’s why it can be kind to offer practical help. But don’t leave the responsibility on the grieving person. In other words, don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” Instead, say, “I’m going to drop off a casserole for you on Tuesday. What time should I drop it off?”
Here are some ways you can provide practical help to someone who is grieving:
- Shop for groceries or run errands
- Mow the lawn
- Drop off a casserole
- Help with insurance forms or bills
- Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry or taking out the trash
- Watch their children or pick them up from school
- Look after their pets
- Go with them to a support group meeting
- Accompany them on a walk
- Take them to lunch or a movie
- Share an enjoyable activity (sport, game, puzzle, art project)
Sometimes, just being a friend is exactly what they need and doing normal activities together can make things comfortable for both of you.
Tip #7: Give them a hug
Physical touch is powerful, and often, it says more than words. The grieving person may not feel like talking, and that’s okay. Instead, offer eye contact and a sympathetic expression. Squeeze their hand or shoulder. If you’re family or a friend, give them a hug. If tears come, let them come. Don’t let the tears bother you. Don’t try to stop them or make a joke to lighten the moment. Sometimes, it’s best to just sit and be and let the emotions come. And if you are willing to sit and be present with them, that’s a gift.
Tip #8: Check in
Even after you’ve offered your initial condolences, consider taking it a step further. People in grief need support for months and sometimes years following the loss. To let them know you care, you can send a thoughtful gift. Reach out on special dates, like birthdays and anniversaries. Offer childcare or a lunch date. Text or call to ask how they are and if there’s anything you can do to help. Write a card or invite them to a day at the spa or the golf club. There are many ways you can support them in the days and months following a loss. Just make sure to follow through and let them know you’re available.
Before we go, remember – no matter what you say – it doesn’t have to be perfect to be supportive. You don’t need to take their pain away – that’s impossible. If they don’t open up right away, don’t force it, but also, don’t steer the conversation away from the death. Let things happen naturally. The grieving person simply needs you to show that you care and that you love them, no matter what they are working through.
For most suggestions on how to support a grieving friend or loved one, read:
10 Caring and Creative Sympathy Gifts
8 Simple Tips for Writing a Meaningful Condolence Letter
6 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person
6 MORE Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person
7 Tips for Helping a Grieving Friend