We’ve all been there. Someone we care about experiences the loss of a close friend or relative and we’re left a bit confused as to how we can be supportive and comfort the one grieving. How do we know what to say when someone is grieving? Can we relate when their world has been turned upside down?
What grief is like
Grief can be a complicated beast with no time table. There are a wide variety of emotions people go through and there is no time limit to when and how someone should grieve. There are a variety of different types of grief and all are valid.
Just how every relationship is different, so is the grief that follows when we lose a unique relationship. And as someone who is still grieving the loss of my cat, Chewbacca, who we lost in 2021, I can attest that grief is sneaky and tricky.
It shows up physically and I often feel like I’m carrying around extra weight, making it harder to get out of bed. Grief changes my appetite completely, craving comfort foods or nothing at all. It also shows up mentally, where I often feel exhausted and scatterbrained just by looking at the long list of to-dos piling up with work and life.
And then there’s the emotional side, where just hearing a simple song can send me into tears and all the feels. In the first few months I cried every day. Now, the crying still happens, but I can tell the intensity has decreased.
There is nothing anyone can say to take away the pain or fix the situation. It is what it is and that’s okay. But it doesn’t make it any easier to go through.
Our partner, Cogey, shares more about her grief after losing her mom in a recent article about the little things…
“Grieving is very different for everyone and I think that when you are grieving, you shouldn’t feel guilty about the way that you’re doing it because you know you need to take the time for yourself. Take all the days, weeks, months in order to feel at peace with what happened. The people who are in your life and surround you will support you and they’ll be there for you when you decide and you feel a little bit better, feel like going out more. For me personally, I have a tendency to isolate, you know, if I don’t feel right and I don’t feel like faking it with people just for the sake of being social and stuff. My friends have been very, very understanding of that”
So now, what would be helpful to say to and do for someone who is grieving? I’ll share what I’ve found helpful along with countless others who have shared their unique experiences with grief.
Moving from sympathy to empathy with active listening
According to Psychiatric Medical Care, “Sympathy involves understanding from your own perspective. Empathy involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and understanding why they may have these particular feelings.”
Now, will we ever be fully aware of why someone may be having a strong experience with grief? No. But we can seek to understand our friends and family going through grief by moving away from trying to relate to our own experience and getting curious about what it is they’re experiencing.
When I asked people who are grieving what someone should say to comfort and support them, 90% of the time the answer was to simply listen.
As a fellow griever, I have to agree. The most helpful phone calls and texts I received were the ones where I had the opportunity to share what it was I was feeling, tell some stories about Chewy to keep her memory alive, and not feel judged for feeling all the feels.
The challenge is that sometimes we don’t always know how to listen. Sometimes our own grief gets in the way and we want to relate to or fix their grief instead of seeking to understand them and just provide space for the bereaved to share whatever it is they wish to.
I’ve been there, and sometimes I still go there when I’m not thinking straight. However, if we really want to be there for our loved ones, we need to get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable and become great active listeners.
In the book Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss lays out a couple of active listening strategies that were designed for negotiating, but I believe can also help build empathy for those in your life who are grieving.
Mirroring is repeating key words the other person uses in conversation back to them when it’s your turn to speak. This strategy shows the person that you’re listening and that you understand them. It’s most effective when you repeat one, two, or three words from the last words your loved one has spoken.
By reiterating just a few words back to your loved one, you are actively listening and can give them permission to elaborate further on those few words that you repeated.
Label their pain, don’t feel it
A second strategy is to make a verbal observation of what your loved one is telling you. This can look like “It sounds/seems/looks/feels like…” or “You sound/seem/look like…” and should pick up on what you recognize as someone outside of the grief.
For example, if your loved one is feeling overwhelmed and having a hard time picking up all of the pieces after losing someone, the phrase “It seems like what you’re going through is really tough” may work well. The key to this strategy is to listen and observe enough to be able to label what it is they’re experiencing.
This strategy can help the bereaved feel validated for what they’re experiencing and encourage them to share more, lightening the load they’re carrying with grief.
What to say to someone grieving
Not everyone you encounter who is grieving will be your best friend or close relative. And so as we enter a conversation with a bereaved friend, coworker, or family member, keep in mind how your words will be received.
One of the biggest things to remember is that not everyone is ready to talk about their experience with grief and losing their loved one. That’s okay. You can still remind them that you’re there for them and open up the door for a future conversation.
Grief can be extremely lonely when someone who was a big part of our life is no longer with us. Remember that sometimes a small gesture like sending an emoji or gif when someone is going through grief can be a great reminder that you’re there, even if you don’t have the right words to say.
Here are a few reminders from a recent Eterneva article that remind us of a few simple rules of thumb when it comes to approaching a loved one who’s grieving:
Honor their experience
Your words as well as your actions will be a big part of helping a grieving friend understand that they are supported as they go through it. This lends itself powerfully to words of affirmation and support. When you know that your friend or loved one is experiencing hardship, go the extra mile and speak your support into their life with a sympathy card or holding space to just listen. Tell your friend or loved one that you are there for them and don’t be afraid to affirm that they have the freedom and support to experience their grief. Encourage them by calling out the courage in them and affirm their experience is important and that you fully support it.
Don’t be afraid to not relate
If you find yourself at a spot where a loved one is experiencing something you cannot relate to, don’t let that hold you back. Acknowledge it openly to your loved ones and let them know that you are open to their needs while they are healing.
Be careful pulling from your own experience
The unfortunate truth is that many of us will be able to relate all too well to the grief of a loved one or friend walking through loss. This creates a new space and ability to help strengthen your loved one during a time of crisis. However, that does not mean that the obvious answer is to constantly pull from your own experience. In fact, doing that very thing could at times be more stifling to your loved one than encouraging or alleviating.
Timing is everything
The act of grieving will have key moments when encouragement and love are needed in different ways. The same way that a marathon runner knows when they will be in need of encouragement and so asks their friends and family to camp at a certain mile marker to provide that boost of confidence, the grief process will also need encouragement. If you have a loved one that is experiencing grief in a way that you can relate to, pull from your own experience when it comes to timing. When were words of encouragement most needed for you? What do you wish you would have heard sooner? What did you hear that didn’t help or even made it worse?
Remember your negative experiences with grief
By looking back over your own experience and pulling from where you felt like someone said something that was out of place or badly worded, you can impact your loved one and communicate effective. Even though everyone’s journey through grief is unique, there are strong similarities that can help us as a community navigate the path together. The negative moments or the moments where intentions were well-meaning but delivery or execution was amiss can prove as incredible moments to help you improve your community with heartfelt condolences.
Remember your positive experiences with grief
This same principle can be applied to the moments and words that you experienced and received from the community that really helped you. Whether that was a direct word of encouragement or a simple action, this knowledge can help you powerfully impact your loved ones who are suffering grief.
Be authentic and open
The hardest part of trying to figure all this out is the innate messiness of just being human and feeling inadequate. No matter how carefully you plan or how sensitive you are, the chance and opportunity to accidentally offend or dismiss someone is always present. However, that should never hold us back from doing our best to help encourage and love those who are grieving with a condolence message. Practice acceptance with yourself before you try and comfort a person going through grief. The truth is that they do need you and your love and support will be a huge part of their journey. So be sensitive, make sure you’re being open and authentic and coming from a place of love.
However, most importantly—simply be there for them. Don’t let a fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from sharing words of encouragement when they are needed most.
Great, now that you’ve got some great reminders as you approach your loved one, here’s a cheat sheet of one liners that can help let your bereaved loved one know that you’re thinking of them and potentially open a conversation, if they’re ready.
- I’m here for you.
- I’m thinking of you
- Do you want to talk about it?
- Is there anything that you need?
- Is there anything I can do for you?
- When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.
- It’s okay to feel whatever you need to feel.
- Take all the time you need for yourself.
- Say nothing at all, listen & hold space.
- Do you want to talk about it or do you want to be distracted from it?
- I’m sorry things are so tough right now
- I’m not sure how to be here for you right now. Please let me know how you’d like me to support you.
If you’re having a hard time saying these words directly to your loved one, remember you can always write a sympathy card or send a text to help remind them that you’re there for them.
What not to say to someone grieving
While there are plenty of options to consider for what to say when someone is grieving, it may be even more important to consider what will not be received well. Keep in mind the bereaved are often exhausted going through the ups and downs of their own grief journey.
Again, keeping empathy in mind, our goal is seeking to understand instead of trying to relate. With that in mind, steer clear of using these phrases in your conversations along with a reminder as to why it may not be appropriate.
“I know what that’s like” or “I know how you feel”
Remember, every grief experience is different. Seek to understand how they feel instead of saying it.
“How are you doing?”
This question can be a lot for someone who is grieving. Some people just simply don’t want to share that they’re struggling or not okay in fear of burdening someone else. Asking if they want to talk about it may be a better route forward.
“Call me if you need anything”
Instead of putting the burden on them to call, give them a call and ask if you can do something specific for them.
“Get over it”
Whether it’s been 2 days or 2 years, grief has no time table. Respect that some people may need more time to process their grief.
“It’s all going to be alright,” or “Don’t worry, this will get better”
Their loved one is gone and it will take time and patience to go through the grief journey. Don’t make empty promises that you can’t keep.
A lot of times people share their grief instead of listening to the bereaved. Try not to add additional grief by sharing your own.
What to do for someone grieving
Now that we’ve gotten through some of the ways you can talk to your loved one who’s grieving, let’s consider some non-verbal options that may help the bereaved.
Yes, I’m saying it again because it’s that important. Listen to their words, their body language, and behaviors. Practice your active listening skills by mirroring and labeling their experience. Remember that not everyone is going to want to talk, and that’s okay.
If you can visit your loved one or invite them over for one-on-one time, give it a try! Keep in mind that many people who are grieving also experience anxiety and depression after a loved one passes. With that in mind, try to keep the surprises to a minimum and limit the number of people who are within earshot when you create a space for your loved one to feel whatever it is they need to feel. Put your phone and other distractions away and give your loved one undivided attention.
Meet for tea or a walk
If your loved one is starting to get out of the house or would like to try, consider meeting for a walk or tea. Since they’re likely more tired than normal, keep a slow pace and limit the time together to ensure you don’t overwhelm them.
Help with chores
Whether it’s dropping off dinner, mowing their grass, or taking their kids to daycare, helping with the chores can be a great way to show your support. Just be sure to check in with them and ask about what you’d like to help with, again, limiting the surprises.
Give a journal
When I lost my cat, my best friend gave me a journal with her picture on the inside and a few quotes that she wrote in the journal. It was one of the best things I could have received because there were no expectations, but I was given a way to express myself without any pressure. The journal now reminds me of memories with Chewbacca and my best friend’s support.
Be ready with resources
If your loved one does reach out to you for help, remember that there are a lot of options to choose from. Whether it’s a grief retreat, support group, grief therapist or grief podcast, your loved one may not have the energy to do the research for themselves. If they’re open to your support, try making a couple of personalized recommendations for them to consider.
Continue to check in
It doesn’t need to be over the top, but a simple text every week can go a long way. Or maybe a monthly call is appropriate. Try to remain consistent in checking in to ensure that your loved one knows they have a safe space to turn to when they need to. Grief has its ups and downs and strong emotions can last for years. Any support you continue to give past the initial months will likely mean a lot to your loved one.
As someone who’s going through it, thank you for reading this far. I hope that you’ll take away some tools that will help you have more meaningful conversations and more importantly, you’ll be able to take action that will help your loved one heal.
We all learn from loss and when we listen to those grieving around us and just be there for them, we learn what it means to lose and how we can appreciate what we do have, including their memories. Learning from loss is healing for everyone. But healing takes time… one conversation at a time and one breath at a time. 💞