Grief is messy, for both the grieving and those around them. If your friend or loved one is grieving, it is natural to want to do anything you can to help them feel better. The problem is, in a society that struggles with negative emotions or slowing down, many of us don’t know what to do or say when a friend or family member is experiencing loss.
Here are some ideas to consider as you try your best to support your loved one who is experiencing a loss.
Avoiding well-intentioned “fixing” or platitudes
We want to give comfort and support to those experiencing grief, but it is important to avoid unintentionally causing more harm than good in our desire to “fix” the situation. In doing so, we may actually find that we are minimizing our loved one’s pain, perhaps subconsciously in order to help ourselves feel better.
We often use platitudes when we don’t know what to say or want to make sense of a complicated, incomprehensible situation.
For example, if you are feeling uncomfortable with the silence or intensity of someone’s sorrow, it’s hard to know what to say. It may be tempting to use a platitude, such as “It was their time to go,” or “This is how it was meant to be.” We often use platitudes when we don’t know what to say or want to make sense of a complicated, incomprehensible situation. Making these statements might help us feel less overwhelmed or more in control, but they do nothing to actually help the individual who’s grieving. These statements are likely to only make the person feel more alone, and less understood, in their grief.
Providing space for grief
Make it your goal to simply provide a safe space for your loved one to work through the depth of their thoughts and feelings (we often hear this called “holding space”). You can be fully present with them in their pain and confusion, showing empathy, attention, and concern to their feelings. Start by actively listening, without judgment. Avoid trying to fill the silence with words: even if you have experienced your own significant loss, because grief is so individual and personal, we cannot assume we fully understand what a bereaved loved one is going through. Remember that time and space are a necessary part of healing.
Start by actively listening, without judgment. Avoid trying to fill the silence with words.
What do I say to someone who has lost a loved one?
While your focus can remain on listening and letting them have the space and time to grieve, there will be moments when you are searching for the right words to communicate your support. Here are some ideas for what to avoid saying, and what may be helpful words for someone who is grieving.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- It was their time to go.
- It’s time to snap out of it, get over it, and move on.
- I understand what you’re going through. I know how you feel.
- At least they lived a long life; many people die young.
- They’re in a better place now.
- There will be another like them.
- God wanted it this way.
- Be strong.
- I already asked you this yesterday: What do you need?
Instead, you could say:
- I am so sorry for your loss.
- I am here to listen and help in any way I can.
- I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
- I’ve been thinking about you. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
- My favorite memory of your loved one is…
- I am always just a phone call away.
- Can I hug you?
- Can I just sit with you?
- It’s okay to feel those things.
- I know this is a hard day/week/month for you, so I wanted to check in.
- You should take all the time you need to process this.
- What I hear you saying is … Is that right?
- It looks like you’re feeling … Is that right?
- Do you want to elaborate more on that?
Experts also recommend that we avoid the common pitfall of asking, “What do you need?” Someone who’s grieving is unlikely to know the answer, or to feel comfortable asking for help with basic, everyday tasks. Instead, simply offer up support. This could look like bringing over a meal for them to eat on their own time, doing the dishes, walking the dog, or booking a babysitter.
About Joseph Stern, MD
Dr. Joseph Stern is a board certified neurosurgeon and author of Grief Connects Us: A Neurosurgeon’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and Compassion, which tells his story of unexpected loss and how that impacted his career as a physician. The book explores the impact of grief and loss on both doctors and patients, advocating for medical professionals to tap into their emotions when interacting with patients and their families. Join the conversation by signing up for the newsletter or following Dr. Stern’s social media accounts.