Knowing what to say to a grieving person can be difficult because facing the death of a loved one is often the most traumatic, emotional experience a person can endure. It’s a time filled with both very real and difficult tasks (such as planning a meaningful funeral or deciding between burial and cremation) and very real and intense emotions.
At some point, we will all interact with someone in the throes of grief. That might be because you both knew the deceased. It might be because you work with someone who’s recently lost a loved one. Or it might be because you are simply in the same space and the subject of the loved one’s death is raised. No matter the circumstance, it can be difficult to know what to say to a grieving person and you might wonder if what you say is helpful or not.
It’s important to remember that intentions don’t always come through in how we express ourselves. We might mean to offer comfort by saying something we think is funny, for example, only to realize later that it actually was hurtful to the other person. This is why thinking of how someone grieving the loss of a loved one might want or need to hear is more important than focusing on how you intend to appear when you’re wondering what to say to a grieving person.
Like most emotionally fraught events, it can be difficult to know what to say to a grieving person. While every situation is different, much depends on how well you know the person who is grieving as well as how you know that person (if you’re that person’s boss, for example, rather than a childhood friend). People who are closer and have shared memories of the deceased can speak to one another in a way that casual acquaintances or work colleagues can.
Even so, there are some general guidelines that can serve everyone who wonders what do you say to a grieving person?
Acknowledge Their Loss
Sometimes it might feel more comfortable to avoid the issue of death altogether. While that’s not an option at a funeral or a wake, it can be an issue when you’re with a grieving person in a more neutral setting. Think about bumping into a childhood friend at the grocery store or a friend of your parents who knew you when you were younger. The temptation might be to talk about something that we think of as “easy,” like the weather or a common interest (sports, TV shows, etc).
Resisting this temptation is important. It’s also important to acknowledge the death of a loved one by speaking it out loud. A simple I am sorry for your loss accomplishes this. It tells the person grieving that you are, in some way, bearing witness to the pain they’re currently feeling.
Keeping your thoughts simple and brief is also good. It expresses how you’re feeling without adding additional burdens to those most affected by the person’s death.
Admit You Don’t Know What to Say
Talking about death and grief is difficult. Many–if not most–people don’t know what to say at all, so they try to fill the space with words to ease the tension or to make it seem as if everything is “normal.”
Grieving people, however, often appreciate when someone else says I don’t know what to say or I don’t have the right words, but I care or I’m not good with words, but I’m here for whatever you need.
These offerings of support remind the person grieving that it’s ok to not be articulate during times of immense pain or stress. It also communicates to the person grieving that you support them, even if you aren’t sure which words will offer comfort.
Being honest in this way also reminds everyone that we all struggle sometimes with finding the right words, especially when we don’t know what to say to a grieving person. Being honest is always a good policy, in general, but especially at trying times like coping with the death of a loved one.
Share Memories of Their Loved One
Part of grieving is coming to the realization that the person who died will no longer be in the world, or in our lives. The only way to remedy this is by remembering the person when they were alive.
Offering a favorite memory of the deceased can be a way to celebrate their life and remind the person grieving of happier times. By saying my favorite memory of your dad was when… and then recounting a story that will give the person grieving insight into their loved one, you are helping their memories thrive. This can offer the person grieving a moment of levity or reflection that lifts their spirits, even if only briefly.
Remember the spirit of honesty, too, and share only genuine memories. A grieving person will take the memory you’ve shared and add it to their own memories; if what you’ve shared seems odd to them in some way, it won’t offer the comfort you likely intended.
Don’t Speak. Act.
Sometimes words are just inadequate. In those cases, a hug can say everything you want to without speaking at all. So can sitting with someone in silence. That might seem awkward at first, but sharing physical space without speaking can reinforce the idea that compassion in grief is not earned; the person grieving shouldn’t have to do or say the right thing to be offered support. In fact, it should be there no matter how difficult the situation.
You can also perform acts of kindness or service as a way to show that you care. Offer to pick up the phone or return a text late at night if they eventually want to talk by saying I’m always up late. Feel free to call or text, anytime. Or mow their lawn or go grocery shopping for them without asking first (provided that the thing you choose to do doesn’t add an extra burden for them, such as grocery shopping for steaks when they’re a vegetarian).
It’s important too, to remember that grief isn’t linear and it doesn’t adhere to a timetable. Checking in with someone who is grieving is important when the loss is new, but it’s also just as important several months or even a year later. A simple I’ve been thinking of you and I’m here to talk might be just what your friend or loved one needs to hear, regardless of how long it’s been.
No matter which words or deeds you choose to express your condolences to someone grieving, be sure your gesture is genuine and heartfelt. And give yourself grace if you say something imperfectly. We all make mistakes.
We’ve worked with grieving families for more than 50 years and we’re always here to offer support, guidance, and information. Please know you can reach out at any time if we can be of service.