Finding the right words when someone is grieving can be difficult, but being honest and allowing them to be heard is a good start.
Grief, while uncomfortable, is inevitable — everyone experiences grief in some form or fashion throughout their life.
Grieving is a natural part of life and can occur after a loss of:
- a loved one — whether by death or a changed relationship
- a job
- a childhood home
- autonomy or independence due to illness or old age
- less tangible things, such as opportunities or prospects for the future
For those experiencing grief, support from family, friends, co-workers, or acquaintances can be very important. But many find themselves at a loss for words — unsure of what to say (or not to say).
Grief can show up in many ways, ranging from anger to extreme sadness and everything outside and in-between.
Because we’re all different, we cope with loss in varying ways. There’s no one “right” way to do so.
Megan Devine, LPC, founder of Refuge in Grief and author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK” says: “Just because grief is messy and difficult, doesn’t make it wrong. It’s actually a normal, healthy response to losing someone you love… Grief is part of love. It’s part of relationships.”
According to Devine, the most important parts when it comes to what you should say to someone who is grieving are around embracing the human experience in all forms, and knowing that it’s not anyone else’s responsibility to take someone’s pain away.
“It is not your job to help your person stop grieving. Your job as a support person is not to cheer them up. It’s to help them feel heard,” Devin explains.
These can be challenging topics for many, so Devine shares actionable tips around what to say to someone who’s grieving.
Devine says that a common reaction from folks who see someone who has experienced loss is to avoid conversation altogether out of fear of saying the “wrong” thing.
“They’ve seen you when you cross the street. They notice that you haven’t said anything,” Devine explains.
To help them not feel ignored or left on their own, try to find the courage to speak with them.
It can be as simple as:
- “Hey, I heard and wanted to ask if you needed anything?”
- “I heard and I’m really sorry. Can I do anything?”
Sometimes, it can help to be specific, since some people in grief may not know what they need in the moment. Consider offering to pick them up a meal or bag of groceries, or helping them with phone calls or household chores if they (and you) are comfortable with that.
Devine says that being honest and leaning into your lack of experience is the best thing to do, rather than attempting to get it exactly right all the time — because that’s impossible.
The most important thing is letting your loved one know that you’re there, so it’s best to be upfront. If you’re at a loss for how to support someone, try saying something like:
- “I don’t know what to say, but I love you so much and I want you to feel heard.”
- “I’m unsure of what to say, but I’m here to listen if you need me.”
Embrace their feelings
A simple check-in is OK, but you’ll want to be prepared to support them in whatever response they give.
Asking, “How have you been?” can be a loaded question, but if they share difficult feelings with you, you can do your best to hold them and not attempt to soothe or change them.
Mental health professionals often refer to this as validating feelings.
People want to feel both heard and understood. Validating what they’re feeling or experiencing during a period of grief can help them feel less alone and normalize their emotions.
Don’t fear the worst
Devine shares that often, people are concerned about making the person grieving sadder, but that’s unlikely to happen. “You do not need to have the script for every single thing,” she says.
It’s best to be true to who you are and what your relationship with that person is. Don’t be afraid to say their loved one’s name, or feel like you have to actively avoid places or situations that could potentially remind them of what they have lost — they’re not going to forget.
In her book, Devine shares a short list of things she and many others have heard when they were grieving. Some of these statements can feel rather dismissive, such as:
- “At least you had them for as long as you did.”
- “They’re in a better place now.”
- “At least now you get to know what’s really important in life.”
- “This will make you a better person in the end. You won’t always feel this bad.”
- “This is all part of the plan.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
Other responses may be laden with blame, such as:
- “Now you know better.”
- “Maybe you should have listened to your intuition that day.”
- “I bet you won’t discount your inner voice next time.”
According to Devine, these sorts of responses occur because we’re hardwired to not only fix situations we perceive as problems, but to assuage our own concerns.
“We say things that help us manage our anxiety when we think we’re trying to connect with somebody,” she adds.
When you respond to someone navigating a hard time with phrases like the above, you’re letting them know that your discomfort is more important than their honest feelings.
Devine talks about a “ghost-sentence,” — one that people who are grieving hear at the end of those responses that often sounds a lot like, “so stop feeling bad.”
“The problem is, there’s an implied second half of the sentence in all those familiar lines. That second half of the sentence unintentionally dismisses or diminishes your pain; it erases what is true now in favor of some alternate experience. That ghost-sentence tells you it’s not OK to feel how you feel,” Devine explains.
If you’re navigating your own grief, it can be difficult when people don’t know what to say. No matter how you show up during this time in your life is OK.
“Because we talk about grief as a pathology, you might start thinking there’s something wrong with you when there’s not,” Devine explains.
She encourages clinicians and loved ones alike to stop treating the human condition as if it’s a disease, and realize that negative feelings are going to occur. Shaming people for having natural responses to hard situations is not going to change that.
“Grief is not a problem to be solved, it’s an experience to be carried,” she says.
Shame is not something you have to carry. In addition to being honest about where you are and leaning into your feelings, your options for navigating this part of your life can be aided by:
A major point to remember when thinking of what to say to someone who is grieving is that it’s not your responsibility to end anyone’s hardship. It’s enough to show up in the ways you can and be straightforward about where you could fall short.
If you just want to let a loved one know you would like to be present, but are not sure how to help — it’s OK to tell them so.
If you’re feeling awkward and concerned about making it worse, try to remember that you probably can’t make it worse. Consider telling your friend that though you might inevitably get it wrong sometimes, you’re there for them.