Helping a Friend in Grief

6 MORE Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

By | Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – we just don’t know what to say to our friends, family, children, or coworkers who are grieving. We want to offer words of comfort, encouragement, and love. But there are some things we just shouldn’t say. Our hearts may be in the right place, but people cannot see our hearts. They cannot decipher our good intentions. They can only interpret what they hear and what they see: our words and our body language.

In 6 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person, we talked about the power of words. Our words have the ability to hurt or to heal. They are a powerful tool. We can use our words for building up or tearing down. We all know this is true. So, let’s use our words wisely, kindly, and for the encouragement and building up of those around us. Below is a list of a few more phrases that should be banished from our conversations with people who are grieving.

6 MORE Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

“How’s your family holding up?”

While this question is not innately bad, take the time to ask about your friend or loved one first. Ask “How are you?” and then ask about family members. By asking about family first, you indicate that the family’s feelings are more important than the individual’s feelings. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a respected grief author, educator, and counselor, offers this advice: “Keep in mind that your friend’s grief is unique. The death of someone loved is a shattering experience.  As a result of this death, your friend’s life is under reconstruction.” Take time to ask your friend about their family, but first, be intentional about asking how they are doing in their own individual grief journey.

“Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

You may be trying to lighten the mood and add a little levity, but in actuality, this comment trivializes the grief felt by the bereaved. You are telling them that their grief is a bit silly, and their loved one would say the same thing. Instead, allow people to grieve. Dr. Wolfelt encourages us to “Allow your friend to experience all the hurt, sorrow and pain that he or she is feeling at the time. Enter into your friend’s feelings, but never try to take them away.

Give them the freedom to express whatever emotions are present. A grieving person needs a safe space to release and process through their emotions. Rather than tell them how they should feel, allow them space to express their true feelings and support them as they begin the healing process. Instead, you might say “There’s no need to apologize. It’s OK to be sad. I know you miss him/her very much.”

“It was his/her time to go.”

This is similar to saying, “He’s/She’s in a better place.” When a person is grieving, it doesn’t matter that it was their loved one’s “time.” While the death of a grandparent or even a parent feels more in the natural order of things, some people are grieving a loss that feels unnatural, like that of a sibling, a child, or a friend. The fact that it was “their time” doesn’t offer the comfort and compassion that your grieving friend needs.

Always remember, grief is made up of many complex and often conflicting emotions. Offering clichés to a grieving person is like trying to put a bandaid on a gaping wound. They just don’t work. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way, “Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a grieving friend. Clichés are trite comments often intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions to difficult realities.” Your intentions may be good, but coping with a loss, even when the loss is expected, is still a complicated process. The best thing to say is “I’m so sorry about your loss. He/she was such a special person.”

“How did he/she die?”

The only reason to ask this question is to satisfy your own curiosity. And in the end, the question will only make you seem nosy. Instead, focus on your grieving friend’s feelings. They need to hear you say, “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “My heart hurts for you.” For some, talking about the details of a death won’t be difficult, but for others, it will be excruciating. It’s best to wait until they decide on their own to share.

Dr. Wolfelt offers this advice from his years of experience: “Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you. Your friend may relate the same story about the death over and over again. Listen attentively each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend’s healing process. Simply listen and understand.”

“You have to be strong for (insert person’s name).”

It is a common misconception that it’s best to move away from our grief rather than to move toward it, but strong-arming your way through grief isn’t very effective. In fact, “being strong” often causes people to push their feelings away and compartmentalize what they feel. Suppressing our emotions is never healthy and can lead to anxiety, tension, and emotional distance from the very person you want to connect with at a difficult time. Perhaps you are a parent, and you feel that you need to “be strong” during a time of loss for your child. So, you put on a happy face and mostly pretend that nothing’s wrong, even though you are broken on the inside.

The problem is, when children see that your words contradict your actions, behavior, and facial expressions, they instinctively learn that “being strong” is more important than “being real.” Instead, demonstrate to your children what healthy grieving looks like. Talk about what you are experiencing. Develop traditions that honor your loved one. Tell stories. Visit the graveside. Allow yourself to cry. All of these are great ways to model healthy grief over the loss of a loved one for a child.

Having walked with many families through the grief journey, Dr. Wolfelt shares this advice for talking with children about death: “Sometimes, adults don’t want to talk about the death, assuming that by doing so children will be spared some of the pain and sadness. However, the reality is very simple: children will grieve, anyway. Adults who are willing to talk openly about the death help children understand that grief is a natural feeling when someone loved had died. Children need adults to confirm that it’s all right to be sad and to cry, and that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever.”

We should not encourage people to “be strong” when that means ignoring what they feel. Certainly, we don’t want them to fall apart for weeks on end and forget all their responsibilities, but we should give them permission to grieve. Ultimately, the person you feel the need to “be strong” for doesn’t need you to shelter or protect them from your pain. They are going to have to learn to deal with pain; it’s part of life. Instead, they need someone to walk beside them as you both grieve.

“I’m sure it will be better soon.”

When someone is grieving deeply, this comment may be frustrating. The grieving person may be thinking that they can’t imagine ever feeling better again. Your presumption that they will be better “soon” can seem insensitive. They may even feel like you are judging their current emotional state. In his teachings, Dr. Wolfelt shares that grief is individual and can take a long time to process. He encourages: “Don’t force your own timetable for healing. Don’t criticize what you believe is inappropriate behavior. And while you should create opportunities for personal interaction, don’t force the situation if your grieving friend resists.”

The reality is that grief can be one of the darkest times in a person’s life. To a griever, telling them things will get better (and soon!) translates to, I don’t understand the pain you are going through right now.” Instead, if your intention is to offer comfort, you can say, “I’m here for you for as long as you need me.” Or you can even offer to help alleviate some stress: “I know this is hard, and I’m here for you. Can I bring dinner to your house tomorrow night?”

All in all, the most important thing you can do is offer support to your grieving friend in the best way you know how. You may stumble a bit with the words, and that’s okay. But take the time to carefully consider your words and say what is most beneficial, even if you feel awkward. Your friend will appreciate your efforts to be sensitive, kind, and supportive in their time of grief and need.

12 of the Best Books on Grief

By | Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have still found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”  – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

The grief journey is long and difficult. We all need a few road signs along the way. That’s why learning from the stories of others is so powerful. You can pinpoint where you are and learn what next step to take. While every grief journey is different, we can all learn from each other’s pain. If you have recently lost someone you love, or you know someone who is grieving, spend a few moments considering these 12 books on grief. Any one of them could have an impact on a grieving heart.

12 of the Best Books on Grief

1. Resilient Grieving: Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything (Lucy Hone, Ph.D.)

Written by psychologist and resilience/well-being expert Lucy Hone, this book explores humanity’s resilience and ability to grow even in the face of traumatic loss. Hone began her own resilient grieving journey after the loss of her 12-year-old daughter, and in her own words, “This book aims to help you relearn your world…to help you navigate the grieving process as best you can – without hiding from your feelings or denying the reality, or significance, of your loss.”

2. I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One (Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D.)

Considered a classic guide, this book was featured on ABC News, Fox and Friends, and many other shows because its message resonates with people. Focused specifically on sudden death, the authors understand that a sudden death could mean any type of relationship or circumstance. Because all of our lives are different, they touch on tough topics like suicide, the death of a child, homicide, and depression. This book provides survivors with an anchor through the storm of grief.

3. A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis)

C.S. Lewis is considered an intellectual giant of the twentieth century and one of its most influential writers. Widely known for his classic children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, he is also the author of many theological works. Written following the death of his wife to cancer, A Grief Observed is an honest record of a man who has lost his beloved and must wrestle with life, death, and faith. You will find his words relatable and real – reflecting the honest struggle we each face in grief.

4. Please Be Patient, I’m Grieving: How to Care for and Support the Grieving Heart (Gary Roe)

From the heart of award-winning author Gary Roe, this short but powerful read focuses on how family and friends can support and love someone who is grieving. Drawing on his experience as a hospice chaplain, Roe shares how we can learn to support those who are grieving, know what to say and not say, discover how to be a help and not a hindrance, and many other helpful suggestions.

5. More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us (Steve Leder)

Pain cracks us open. It breaks us. But in the breaking, there is a new kind of wholeness.” With these words, Rabbi Steve Leder, leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, lays out the essence of his book. It is the suffering, the breaking, that occurs during times of grief that leads us to live more meaningful lives. He outlines three stages of pain – surviving, healing, and growing – which lead us to find meaning in our suffering and new hope for a life that is more beautiful than before.

6. Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief (Martha Whitmore Hickman)

Offering daily meditations for those who are grieving, this book has offered comfort since 1994 and continues to be a sought-after classic. Each daily meditation is brief but powerful, intended to bring comfort and encouragement to any reader. Drawing on her own experiences of grief, Hickman creates a book that is relevant to all, no matter the loss or the year. With more than 1,300 5-star ratings on Amazon, this one is worth a look.

7. It’s OK That You’re NOT OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (Megan Devine)

The basic premise of the book is this: there is nothing wrong with grief. As Devine puts it, “Grief is simply love in its most wild and painful form. It is a natural and sane response to loss.” Using her own loss as an example, she talks about how difficult it is to grieve in our current culture and the importance of building our lives alongside our grief – learning how to reconcile our lives to it – rather than seeking to “get over” or overcome it.

8. Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart (Dr. Alan Wolfelt)

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected grief counselor and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, packs a lot of helpful information into this relatively short read. He discusses the difference between grief and mourning, the factors that make each person’s grief unique, and the need for mourners to treat themselves with compassion. In addition to a wide range of information, the book also includes journaling sections to allow you to engage and write down your own thoughts and feelings.

9. Chicken Soup for Soul: Grieving and Recovery (Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Amy Newmark)

Filled with the stories of other grievers, this book is both inspirational and comforting. As you read through the stories, it’s easy to see that every grief journey is different and every loss unique. Through the poignant and relatable stories shared, you will find yourself appreciating life and receiving strength and support from the lives of others.

10. Life After Loss: A Practical Guide to Renewing Your Life After Experiencing Major Loss (Bob Deits)

Drawing on more than thirty years of experience in helping people cope with major loss, Bob Diets provides practical help with navigating the unknowns of grief and helps you find a different, but no less meaningful, life following a loss. Filled with compassionate insight, Life After Loss is considered “one of the classics” (Dr. Earl Grollman) and a “roadmap for those in grief” (Lawrence J. Lincoln, MD).

11. Safe Passage: Words to Help the Grieving (Molly Fumia)

Written by a grief expert and grieving mother, Safe Passage gently and lovingly guides you through the stages of grief and toward hope and healing. In her own words, Molly Fumia says, “On the path toward healing, I learned two surprising lessons. The first is that grief is the most patient and persistent of all of life’s companions. The second is that grief is an ancient, universal power that links all human beings together.” In Fumia, you will find a compassionate and steady friend.

12. Living When a Loved One Has Died (Earl A. Grollman)

In the pages of this book, Earl A. Grollman, an internationally recognized bereavement counselor, explores the various emotions associated with mourning, the pitfalls to avoid, and how to process and work through the complex emotions of grief. Grollman gently guides the reader through learning how to heal in their own way because we each grieve differently. No two people grieve in the same way, so now two grief journeys will look the same. Find comfort and learn how to move forward.

No matter where you are in life – grieving or not – these books are a fount of compassion, guidance, and information. Whether you need the information now or later, remember that there are those out there who have experienced something similar to you, and you can find courage in their stories.

Accepting the Caring Help of Others

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Gracious acceptance is an art – an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving…. Accepting another person’s gift is allowing him to express his feelings for you.” – Alexander McCall Smith

For many of us, accepting help is difficult. Naturally, we want to help others when needs arise, but when it comes to accepting help ourselves, we resist. But during times of loss and grief, it’s important to accept the caring actions of others. It may be difficult, it may require vulnerability on our part, but we will substantially benefit from the love and care that those around us want to bestow.

But why is it so hard to accept the caring actions of others? Why do we so often say, “Oh, no, that’s okay; I’m fine”? It’s safe to say that there’s no one reason; in fact, reasons for refusing help may differ considerably from person to person. Usually they are subconscious assumptions that are actually false. The following list offers the most common reasons why people refuse the help of others. Are any of these false assumptions keeping you from accepting the help of others?

1. If I accept help, it means that I’m weak and don’t have it all together.

For many of us, it’s ingrained to be independent, self-sufficient, and capable members of society. We don’t want to appear weak for fear of judgment from others because we don’t “have it all together.” But what do we really gain from rejecting the help that others offer us? More work and more stress, most of the time. What’s worse is that it is all for the sake of keeping up appearances—which will never result in deep or meaningful connections with others. On the other hand, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with others can lighten the load and actually strengthen your relationships.

2. I won’t accept help because I don’t want to be an inconvenience or a burden to you. You shouldn’t waste your time helping me.

Some of us struggle with feeling like our needs might be an inconvenience to others. It’s not that our needs aren’t legitimate, it’s just that we don’t want others to take time away from their own lives to help us. When you lose someone you love, you may feel bad that a friend wants to babysit your kids, clean your kitchen, or cook some meals. But really, when you accept the help that’s offered, a door to deeper friendship is opened.

3. I have to return the favor if I accept help. I don’t like feeling that I owe anyone anything.

There are those who struggle with feeling that if they accept help, then it makes them beholden to the person who has offered assistance. Again, because many of us desire independence, we don’t like to owe anyone anything. But consider when you offer to help someone – are you thinking about when you will ask them to return the favor? Or do you genuinely want to help, regardless of whether you “benefit” in the end? For most of us, the answer is that we genuinely want to help and have no ulterior motives. So, if someone you know offers to help you when times are difficult and the grief is overwhelming, take them at their word and consider accepting the offer. What do you have to lose?

4. If I accept help, it means admitting that I can’t do it on my own.

It can be hard to admit that we need help. And it may be that we could do it all on our own, but it would be so much easier if someone was there to lend a hand. In reality, you don’t have to do it on your own, but it’s hard to break the mold. It really is okay to accept the kindness of others. It’s okay to say “yes” to the casseroles, the offers to go to the funeral home with you or just sit with you in silence as you grieve. Social connection and community are part of our internal make-up, so it’s okay to allow others to surround you and support you at a time of grief and loss. After all, it takes more internal strength to accept help than to shun it.

5. If I accept help, it makes my grief more real and highlights the fact that I don’t have this situation under control.

Many of us strive for control in our lives, but in reality, any amount of control we think we have is just an illusion. We may be able to dictate certain aspects of our lives, but there is so much that is outside of our control. And during times of grief, the emotions we feel need to be expressed, and to do that, we need to relinquish the tight hold we have on control. The reality is, you don’t have everything under control, so why not acknowledge it and accept the help others offer?

6. I don’t need anyone’s help. I’d rather just do it myself.

For someone who won’t accept help because they feel like they don’t need other people or they’d rather do it themselves, the cause is often rooted in past pain and disappointment. Perhaps they have been so hurt in the past, so let down by others, that they’d rather just do it themselves than risk being wounded again. The truth is, we need other people. And yes, people are messy, but even in the mess, there is great beauty, especially when you lower your walls to allow someone to serve you with caring actions.

What’s at the root of it all?

So, what’s really happening when we refuse to accept help that we actually need? Are we putting on a happy face when what we really need is a shoulder to cry on? Perhaps we are afraid of being vulnerable in front of other people and admitting our needs. When it comes down to it, all these responses are rooted in fear.

Margie Warrell, in an article for Forbes magazine, put it this way: “Fear gets in the way of asking for help. Fear of overstepping a friendship…of appearing too needy. Fear of imposing….[or] of revealing our struggle and having people realize we don’t have it all together. Too often though we ‘tough it out’ rather than reaching out to ask for help when we need it most. Fear gets the better of us while depriving others of a chance to show they care and share their gifts.”

It’s hard to admit that we might need help, but we do. It can be scary. It can push us to our limits, but we need relationships. We need others. It’s a proven fact that healthy relationships decrease our stress levels and improve our quality of life. So, what’s keeping you from accepting the caring actions of others? Are you afraid that your grief will make them turn away? That the fact that you aren’t okay will make them view you differently? There’s no need to fear. It is natural and human to grieve and to not have it all together. Accepting help will actually draw truly caring people to you. They will be grateful for the opportunity to express their care for you. It may be difficult at first, especially if you are hard-wired to refuse all help, but in time, it will become easier, and your life will be so much richer.


10 Caring and Creative Sympathy Gifts

By | Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.  – Henri Nouwen

When someone we know and care about loses someone they love, it’s hard to know what to do or say. Some will write a condolence letter, others will attend the funeral, and still others will send a sympathy gift. There are even those who will do all three. It is most common to send flowers as a sympathy gift to the family, and in recent years, to give a memorial donation to a specified charity. These are excellent ways to offer sympathy to a grieving friend. However, there are other options. Not all of them are items to purchase. If you are interested in a few non-traditional ways to support a grieving friend or family member, maybe these 10 out-of-the-box gifts will inspire you.

1. Photos the Family Doesn’t Have

If you possess any photos of the person who has died, you might consider making a copy and sharing it with the family. Not only will it be an image of someone dearly loved, but it will be a reminder that their family member is remembered and missed. If you have access to a lot of photos, you could even put together a thoughtful collage and send it to the family with a condolence card.

2. Self-care Items

It’s important to take care of ourselves in times of grief and loss. When we lose someone, we may experience a wide range of emotions: shock, numbness, fear, sadness. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected grief expert and counselor, says, “Good self-care is important [when you’re grieving]. The ‘lethargy of grief’ you are probably experiencing is a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to care for your body.” We must nurture and take care of ourselves in emotionally draining times, so self-care items are an appropriate sympathy gift: bubble bath, moisturizing lotion, perhaps gifting a manicure, pedicure, or massage.

3. House Cleaning/Lawn Care

If you’d like to help in a very practical sense, you can offer to clean house, mow the lawn, shop for groceries, or some other helpful task. In general, we all have a tendency to say, “Don’t worry; I’ll get to it,” but during times of grief, it takes an extra measure of energy to accomplish even the most routine tasks. They may say “no” because they don’t want to inconvenience you, but show them that you aren’t inconvenienced, that you sincerely want to help. Be firm and gracious in your reply. “Please, I want to do this for you. Is Wednesday at 2pm okay for you?”

4. Grief Journal or Sketchbook

For some of us, we process our grief best through writing it down, allowing ourselves to pour the emotions out on paper. Others need to sketch or paint their emotions, using various colors to depict different emotions. Creative expression is an effective tool for expressing externally what is sometimes stuck internally. If you know that your grieving friend is a writer or an artist (and even if they aren’t), this might be a good avenue for self-expression, and therefore, an invaluable gift.

5. A Book About Grief

Sometimes it’s helpful to hear about others’ grief journeys, receiving courage and inspiration from their stories. It’s also beneficial to remember that we are not alone in our grief – we are not the only one who feels a deep sense of loss and bereavement. There are many books available about grief since it is something that every single person on the planet deals with at some point in their lives, though an often noted classic to consider is A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis.

6. Message Jar

Everyone’s grief journey is different. No two journeys look the same, and we should not expect them to look the same. While the message jar may take a bit more time for you to create, it will provide encouragement to the grieving for a longer period of time. For this idea, you need a jar (you choose the size, color, decoration, etc.), and then, using small slips of paper, write 31 notes with words of encouragement to your grieving friend. After receiving the jar, your friend or family member will have an entire month’s worth of comfort and encouragement from you.

7. Something for the Kids

With this one, it will all depend on the child and their age. Perhaps a stuffed animal for a small child, a remembrance necklace for an older one, or if you know the family well, something even more personal and meaningful. Your options are unlimited. You could bring favorite foods, books, a specially made Christmas ornament to honor a lost loved one, and so on. As you seek to comfort your grieving friend’s children, they themselves will also be comforted.

8. Babysitting

Offering to take care of the kids for an evening is another practical gift you can give to a grieving family. The adult(s) may need time to think and process through overwhelming emotions, which can be very hard to do with little ones around. Time alone, or just the opportunity to go do some things solo, can be a rejuvenating and life-giving gift.

9. Vacation Time

Our jobs do not stop even though we are grieving. Some companies provide bereavement days, though it may be restricted to the loss of specific people, usually immediate family. If you are close to a grieving co-worker, and your company allows it, you might consider donating one of your vacation days to a friend who needs a little extra time to grieve. Of course, it will all depend on if this is possible and if you have days to spare, but it’s an option worth consideration.

10. Your Presence

While some people do want to be alone in their grief, your presence is important. Not your advice or your own grief experiences, but your presence. Silent. Waiting. Present. Available. We all need to know that someone cares, that someone acknowledges our grief and our right to grieve. Consider how you can simply be present and available to someone in grief, and when they are ready, a listening ear to someone who simply needs a friend.

8 Simple Tips for Writing a Meaningful Condolence Letter

By | Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Words often fail us. We don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to say it, but we know something must be said. And so, we try our best. This is how you may feel about writing a condolence letter or sympathy card. You know you should say something, but you aren’t quite sure what to say. You worry about saying the wrong thing and making someone’s pain worse. But with a few pointers, you can reach out to others and offer heartfelt, sincere, and meaningful words of sympathy. Here are eight things to keep in mind when writing sympathy cards:

1. Don’t be silent.

It’s human nature to avoid situations that you deem difficult or uncomfortable. But just because something is uncomfortable does not mean it shouldn’t be done. Remaining silent does not help you or the other person. But, if you want someone to feel cared for during a time of loss, write them a card.

2. Social media isn’t always enough.

So many of us are guilty of only expressing abbreviated condolences on social media. “Praying for you.” “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Occasionally, a “Is there anything I can do for you?” But think how much more it would mean to someone, how truly cared for they would feel, if you took time out of your day to specifically and intentionally write to them. You travel to the store, you dawdle over which card to get (it’s got to be perfect!), you go home and sit down to write, and then express your condolences in your own unique way. That’s time you have given up to care for another human being. Condolences expressed on social media are not wrong, and in fact, they can be helpful. It’s an excellent way to express sympathy to someone you don’t know well. But for those you personally know and have a connection to, just think how much more care you will convey by taking the extra time needed to write a letter.

3. Handwrite it.

By handwriting the letter, you add an extra level of personalization. You took the time to sit down and not only gather your thoughts, but write them out. How many people actually do that these days? Far less than in previous years. It means so much more to receive a handwritten note in the mail than any message on social media.

4. Keep it short(ish).

You don’t have to write a tome for your sympathy letter. In fact, it’s better if you keep it somewhat short and succinct balanced with intentionality and compassion.

5. Make it personal.

If you are writing a sympathy card, it’s safe to assume that you either know a person who has lost someone or you knew the person who has died. With that in mind, make your words as personal as possible. If you knew the person who has died, share a positive story that you remember about them or a way they impacted you.

On the other hand, if you didn’t know them personally, mention that you know how much they meant to the family. Or share a story that you heard from your friend about their lost loved one. No matter how you say it, express your sorrow for their loss.

6. No comparisons.

A majority of us know what it is to lose someone we love. It’s hard, painful, and exhausting. But even though we can relate to someone’s grief, we should never compare our grief to theirs. Everyone grieves differently and uniquely. No two grief journeys are the same and shouldn’t be treated as such. Instead, offer words of comfort about your own grief journey, without comparisons. Share a valuable lesson you’ve learned in your own grief journey while still acknowledging, “I know your loss is so different from mine.”

7. Be real.

Don’t be afraid to use words like “death,” “died,” or “die.” According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a respected grief expert and counselor, acknowledging the reality of the death of a loved one is necessary to move forward in your grief journey. By being unafraid to use these terms, you participate in acknowledging the reality of the loss.

8. Add a thoughtful action.

These days, no matter where you live, you can take thoughtful action toward someone in grief. If you live nearby, take a casserole over to the family. If you live further away, order flowers online. With the internet, there’s so much we can do even separated by distance. But remember, don’t offer anything you can’t deliver.

Now that we’ve discussed some things to do, we should also touch on some things we should NOT do. In many cases, it’s just as important what you don’t say as what you do say. There are some things that we should never say to a grieving person. A few pitfalls to avoid:

  • Sometimes the grieving person needs to tell their story, but leave it up to them if they want to share anything regarding the circumstances of their loved one’s death. They shouldn’t be expected to tell the story again and again if they don’t wish to do so, and they definitely don’t need other people treating it like juicy gossip.
  • Refrain from saying anything negative about the person who has died. If you knew them, you may not have personally liked them, but for the purposes of a condolence letter, your opinions need to be kept to yourself.
  • Avoid saying insensitive things like “you’re better off without them” or “cheer up!” Every person needs to be allowed to grieve in their own way, not feel like they’re doing it wrong somehow.
  • Don’t mention the will or the estate. If you are in line to inherit something, you will be contacted at the proper time. The condolence letter is not the right time.
  • Try to avoid clichés. For example, “It was just their time to go” or “They’re in a better place” are cliché phrases that don’t help a person in grief. Don’t rely on old tropes. Put your heart into the letter and be real and sincere.

6 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

By | Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Words are powerful. They have the power to hurt or heal.

But sometimes we say things that we think offer comfort, when in reality, they actually hurt the people we love. We have a responsibility to guard our words, especially when someone is emotionally vulnerable, like after the death of a loved one.

Consider avoiding these phrases when speaking to a friend or loved one who has lost someone close to them (regardless of whether the loss was recent or further in the past).

“I know how you feel.”

It’s true that you may have suffered a similar loss, but you have not suffered this particular loss. The temptation here is to engage in “troubles talk” to find common ground with the person and, in a way, share the burden of the loss. But this comment assumes that you know the complex emotions of the bereaved and that you have felt each one exactly as they do. This is impossible. Rather than hearing your desire to show how much you understand, the bereaved person hears: “I don’t want to understand your specific situation” or “I want to talk about myself.” Every loss is one that has never been experienced before. Every person feels, processes, and heals in a different way. Instead, you might say, “I know every loss is different in its own way, but something that helped me when I lost my mom was (insert helpful suggestion here),” or just simply and sincerely ask, “How are you doing?

“You’re so strong.”

You may intend this to be received as a compliment, but what you’re communicating is, “I expect you to be strong enough to keep your emotions in check through all of this.” This may or may not be your intention, but the result is that the grieving person feels like they can’t share what they truly feel because you expect them to “stay strong.” No matter how “put together” a person looks on the outside, on the inside, they may be experiencing incredible pain. A comment about how strong they are takes away their option to express any vulnerability or genuine emotions to you. You essentially become an unsafe person to talk to. It may invite a more honest response, and you should be ready with your emotional support, but instead, consider saying, “It’s okay to cry.”

“Sometimes we just don’t understand the will of God.” Or, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.”

These phrases and many similar ones are often used in Christian religious circles, and whether by intention or not, they essentially blame God for the death of a loved one. While it is true that we may not fully understand the will of God, these platitudes are not helpful because they contradict the Christian belief in a loving God whose original creation did not include death. In the story of Adam and Eve, death only entered the world after the fall of man and was not in God’s original design. Death is now a natural part of life. It is appropriate to pray for others and seek comfort from God after loss, but not blame him for the loss. Instead, consider saying “I’ve been thinking about you so much” or “You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers.”

“She’s/he’s in a better place.”

When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, you don’t want them to be in a “better place.” You want them to be here, now, with you. In time, it may be a comfort to think of a loved one in heaven. But in the midst of the deep sorrow of NOW, it’s difficult to find comfort or healing in the phrase. Simply be there, and consider asking them questions about the loved one they’ve lost.

“If there’s anything I can do for you, just call me.”

Take note: the grieving person is not going to call you. They aren’t going to want to inconvenience you, even though your offer may be entirely sincere. Instead, take the initiative, and do something intentional. Tell them you are going to pick them up for lunch the following week. Ask them what day you can swing by to drop off dinners for the week. Or, call them every week or so just to check in. As you are intentional, they will feel your love and support.

“It’s been a while since she/he died. Isn’t it time to move on?”

Grief has no expiration date. Allow your loved one the time they need to grieve and put no expectations on them. You can lovingly suggest a grief counselor, ask about the person they lost, but don’t push them. Don’t try to fix their pain. Loving them through their grief will help them along the path to healing much more smoothly than your impatience.

Grief at Work: Helping an Employee or Coworker After a Loss

By | Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

When we think of grief, we often think in terms of how it will affect us, our family members, or our closest friends. But grief hits everyone, and it undoubtedly spills over into our professional lives as well. If you hold any job for a significant period of time, you will likely see an employee or coworker struggling with grief. If this happens, consider applying the following tips to best express your support.

Be Patient: If you are an employer, this simple instruction is particularly important. On average, Americans receive four days of paid leave in the aftermath of a loss. After this short time, employees are expected to return to work and fully engage in their assigned tasks, which often seem overwhelming when combined with the stress that is occurring in their personal life. In a study on grief’s effects on job performance, 75% of participants claimed that they experienced concentration difficulties that extended beyond the period of paid leave.

If you are managing a grieving employee, you may want to consider providing more paid leave. If this isn’t an option, and the employee must return to work after a short period, it is important that he or she feels safe and comfortable in the work environment. Be patient with the employee, communicate your sympathy, and consider temporarily reassigning any tasks or projects that require a high level of creativity or energy. Grief tends to cloud thoughts and reduce energy levels. However, some people throw themselves into their work after losing a loved one. Everyone handles grief in different ways, so be prepared to be flexible with a grieving coworker.

Say Something: One of the most discouraging things about the grief journey is that people tend to shy away from the mourner. This is problematic, because more often than not, those who have lost loved ones need some sort of expression from others to let them know that they are supported. If you don’t know what to say to a coworker or employee, be honest about your uncertainty, and consider communicating something like this: “I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry for your loss. If you need anything or if I can help with…(fill in the blank).” Often, people give a general statement offering help in any way. Be specific. If you know you can help with a project or take some stress off of your coworker, even if it’s only for a while, be sure to offer. Of course, you can always help by providing a meal, donating to a special cause on their behalf, or leaving a card or a small, simple sympathy gift on their desk. Any small gesture could make a world of difference in allowing your colleague to feel understood and supported at work.

Keep the focus on the mourner: While you certainly shouldn’t ignore a grieving coworker, and should communicate your sympathy as clearly as possible, it is also important that you don’t use this conversation as an opportunity to seize the spotlight. When talking with a coworker, the emphasis of the conversation should always be on the needs of the mourner. While well-intended, stories of your lost loved ones are generally not appropriate at this time. To the mourner, these attempts at grief identification indicate that you are assuming that you know how they feel, which can be construed as presumptuous and offensive.

For many people, the challenge is to avoid giving too much advice or easy answers.  There’s nothing wrong with offering support or a word of encouragement, but be careful to avoid telling the person what to do or how to feel. Platitudes or cliches tend to minimize the other person’s pain and send the wrong message. If you are tempted to “make it better” by telling them that their loved one is in a better place or they are at least no longer in pain, don’t. Let them tell you how they feel, and simply express your sympathy and support: I’m so sorry for your loss. If you need anything please let me know.  No advice that you give is going to fix a person’s situation, and when you realize this simple fact, you are better able to offer genuine help.

Check in occasionally: For the first few weeks after loss, mourners typically receive an abundance of support and help. As time goes by, the shock and numbness wear off, but that’s when the reality sets in. Their loved one is not coming back. If the loss is an immediate family member, be sure to check in every few months and genuinely ask “How are you holding up?” Don’t assume they are “strong” because they are doing well at work. Allow them to tell you how they are coping and mention their loved one by name. The sweetest sound to a mourner’s ears is usually the name of their loved one being remembered by others.

Regardless of the specifics of the situation, losing a loved one is hard. But the pain of loss can be compounded by the stressful demands of the workplace. Those who are obligated to return to work soon after a loss are particularly vulnerable to stress and work frustration. As a coworker or an employer, it’s important to take steps to make a grieving worker feel as comfortable and supported as possible.