Blog Short #145: What to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving
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When someone you know and care about is grieving due to a loss, it’s hard to know what to say or do. You feel for them, yet you might feel awkward when you first see them after the fact. You might feel the weight of trying to help and not knowing how.
That’s natural. You may think your response must match the weight of their grief, but the truth is it can’t, nor should it.
Today I’ll go over what to do and what not to do in these instances. If you’ve never been in this position, you will be at some point, and it might help to know what to do.
Let’s start with a couple of facts that will make it easier.
Two Important Truths to Remember
1. Everyone grieves differently.
No two people have the exact same experience of grief, even though there might be some commonalities. You don’t know, nor can you know, all of what the other person feels, even if you’ve experienced a similar loss. You may understand their grieving process more because of your experience, but you still don’t know everything they feel or how they’re experiencing it.
2. The length of a grief reaction is unique to the individual.
Some people take longer than others to find a place for their grief. There’s no time limit or expectation. It could be a year or five years, and some people never get over the loss.
By accepting these two truths, you’re in a much better place to respond. Now let’s look at both what to say and what not to say. We’ll start with what not to say.
What Not to Say
Some of these are common mistakes made out of anxiety to be helpful, but they aren’t. Don’t say anything remotely like these statements.
- I know how you feel.
- It’s been a year – time to put it behind you and move on.
- Think of all the positive things about her.
- You have such beautiful memories. Cherish them.
- She’s in a better place now.
- It was her time. God has a plan for her.
- Be grateful you had her for as long as you did.
- I felt the same way when my husband died, but I’m okay now. You will be too.
- You don’t look well. How are you?
You probably cringed at some of those, especially if you’ve experienced a loss yourself.
There are particular things someone grieving doesn’t want to hear.
They don’t want anyone to:
- Hurry up their grieving process.
- Put a positive spin on things.
- Comment on how ragged they look or how they look at all.
- Jump in with their experiences.
- Say you understand how they’re feeling.
None of those actions are appreciated and will leave the grieving person feeling more isolated.
What do you say?
You could say:
I’m so sorry for your loss and that you’re going through this. I don’t want to invade, but I’m here for you if you want to talk. I’ll listen.
When the grief is new, often, people are in shock. Some withdraw and don’t want to talk to anyone. Others need to talk a lot, and their conversation may run the gamut of sadness, anger, helplessness, fear, and defeat.
Those who want to talk appreciate someone who listens quietly without interjecting ideas or opinions, even if they’re meant to be helpful.
When someone experiences a significant loss, they don’t want to deal with other people’s anxiety about how to respond to them. They want time and, if possible, someone who can sit still and hear them.
To provide that, you need to feel comfortable with being unable to make things better. That’s not your goal. Your goal is simply to be there, and when asked to help in some way, do that. It’s also to give the other person space when they need it.
If they want advice or the benefit of your experience, they’ll ask for it.
Above all, don’t minimize, measure, or evaluate the person’s reactions. Let them be. Show acceptance with quiet attentiveness.
How else can I help?
Depending on the situation, there may be practical things you can do. I would caution you, however, not to overwhelm someone with something you think they might want. I’ve known situations where people brought so much food to the house that some had to be thrown out, not to mention the person felt invaded by so many people showing up on their doorstep.
Generally, sending flowers, cards or acknowledging the loss in a simple yet kind way is helpful.
Some of what you do will depend on how well you know the person, how close and familiar you are with each other, and the experiences you’ve shared previously in dealing with emotional issues.
For example, if your daughter lost her husband and you’re close to each other, she might want you to stay with her or come over and help with the house or kids. But if you’re an acquaintance or work buddy, you wouldn’t do something that familiar.
The idea is to offer help that won’t make the grieving person feel invaded or awkward.
Here’s a list of possibilities:
- Take your loved one to necessary appointments
- Help with insurance forms, funeral arrangements, or other immediate end-of-life needs
- Drive the kids to activities or watch them when needed
- Run errands
- Prepare food and drop it off
- Walk the dog or attend to pets
- Do some household chores like laundry or cleaning up
- If you’re very close, run interference with other people who are coming to the house
- Take a walk together or take them out somewhere if they would like to get out of the house
Things to Watch Out For
Grieving and extended grieving sometimes develop into clinical depression. It’s normal to feel depressed, sad, and helpless when you lose someone. You might also feel immobilized or paralyzed for a time.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s no protocol on how someone “should” grieve. It’s unique to each person. However, it is crucial to note if someone becomes too depressed and needs some intervention.
Obvious signs of this are:
- Neglecting self-care and personal hygiene
- Inability to function in daily life
- Withdrawal for extended periods
- Excessive hopelessness
- Talking about wanting to die or suicide
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Other signs of serious mental health issues like hallucinations
If you’re worried about someone, it’s good to encourage them to seek help and do what you can to aid them in getting an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist. If you’re unsure what to do, speak to a mental health expert or physician for advice. Most cities have crisis lines where you can speak with someone immediately.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Remember that your job is not to remove the grief. Be supportive but don’t take on the responsibility of the grief itself. That won’t be good for you or the other person.
Be present, don’t disappear, and if the grief becomes overwhelming, aid your loved one to get help.
This blog focuses on losing someone due to death, but people go through similar grieving processes when they lose a significant relationship or experience a catastrophic loss like losing their home.
My family lived in Miami during Hurricane Andrew, and they were traumatized for months afterward. The losses were horrific. My brothers remained and rebuilt their lives, but my sister left and rebuilt her life elsewhere because the damage was too great.
The point is that all the advice given here for grieving can also be used for those kinds of situations.
A Quick Note
Today’s blog subject was requested by a reader. If you have something you’d like me to address, email me about it.
That’s all for today!
Hope you have a great week!
All my best,