What to say (and not say) to a grieving person.

To break the awkward silence.

To offer comfort.

To be helpful.

To offer advice.

To let them know we care.

To show them we are hurting with them, too.

To let them know they are not alone.

To make ourselves feel better.

To get them to stop crying.

To get them to smile.

To make them feel loved.

Today’s question is: Why do we say… what we say… to grieving people?

We’ve all been there…maybe on both sides of the equation. We’ve been the ones to speak to a grieving person, and also on the receiving end when others responded to our hard life event.

I am going to bet that most people truly want to be helpful, loving, caring, and respectful. But sometimes what people say during these hard moments may be just the opposite.

BLOG Blessed are those who mourn

Can you identify with the 6 most common phrases said to a grieving person?

I’m sorry for your loss…

They’re in a better place…

Just be thankful it wasn’t…

If you need anything, let me know…

I know what you’re going through…

I’m praying for you/thinking of you…

What about YOU? Which one is your go-to?

“I’m sorry for your loss…” – respectful, honest, THE most common phrase (especially in written form), and perfectly acceptable.

  • Add to it: “I’m sorry for your loss….he was such a great guy/I will remember his bear hugs/He will be missed/Her smile was precious.
  • Bring up a memory of that person that the grieving person would appreciate hearing. They want to hear stories about their loved one! They want people to say their loved one’s name. Follow up with a written form of that story or memory. It will be treasured, and they might not remember you mentioning it at a visitation or funeral. Remember – a newly grieving person’s head is spinning and cloudy.

“They’re in a better place…”  Oh boy. Listen: if you are a Christian you know that ultimately this is true. Heaven is pure bliss and it is no doubt better than any perfect paradise we know of on Earth. There is no suffering, no fear, no regret, no looking back. However, in the midst of severe grief the thought of our loved one being anywhere but by our side is not comforting at all.

Quite possibly the worst experience of my grief journey happened in my own home, said by a priest, nonetheless. I can’t remember if my husband’s body was even out of the house yet, when we formed a prayer circle. The priest included in his prayer, the fact that my husband was now in Heaven, and he wouldn’t want to come back even if he could. (Cue the slamming brakes sound!). I was livid. I wanted to scream out. I wanted to choke that priest and argue my case. Absolutely without a doubt, if Kevin could, he would see us all crying and shaking and come back to his family, his precious boy, his barking and confused dogs, his heart-broken best friend….he would. He would come back right now if he could. I was sure of it.  I mean, talk about the absolute worst time to say such a thing. That phrase haunted me for years. If you as the reader take nothing else from this blog, take this: please be careful when thinking of this phrase. While it may be true, the result could be devastating.

“Just be thankful it wasn’t…”  Seeing the bright side of things, I get it. Taking a bad situation and finding the positive – yes. I do this in my life. I believe it could always be worse and when I’m faced with a sad situation I try to focus on the positive.

  • The grieving person may not be able to see the bright side right now or for a little while. They are allowed to cry, be sad, and be realistic about what has happened. While it could have been worse, it doesn’t change the fact that it still happened the way it did.
  • Don’t tell the grieving person how to feel or that they need to be thankful. Let them be how they are going to be.

“If you need anything, let me know”  Please avoid this. If you are saying it to merely appear helpful, or don’t know what else to say, then say “sorry for your loss” instead.

  • Offer something specific – use your gifts to offer something the grieving person needs.
  • Offer it several times over the course of the next few months.  Don’t be pushy, but offer more than once and don’t be offended if they don’t respond right away (or at all). Offer again in a few weeks or a few months.
  • Do not wait for the grieving person to let you know what they need. The only thing they really need is their loved one back. Unless you are Jesus, to my knowledge you cannot do that for them. Asking for help is a really hard thing that grieving people have to ease into and get used to over time. They probably are not good at it, and don’t want to do it, even if they know they need to.

One kind friend, at the visitation of my husband, offered her husband to come mow my lawn for the summer. She insisted that her husband really wanted to do it and they would be calling me soon to set it up. It was such a blessing that I didn’t have to do it and didn’t have to ask. They offered and followed through.  A neighbor offered child care if I needed to do grocery shopping, or anything else. They offered over and over again, in person and written in cards. They insisted that they meant what they were saying and they would be the ones feeling blessed if they were able to help me in this way.  It was because they offered multiple times that I finally felt ok with accepting this help so that I could take an exercise class with some friends.

“I know what you’re going through…”  I doubt it. Not exactly. I probably have said this to new widows. But the fact is, all situations are different. I can let someone know that I, too, was widowed and I know it is very hard and it’s a long road ahead. For a newly-grieving person feels so alone, and much comfort can come in talking to someone who has “been there.”  But just use caution in claiming that you know the exact pain they are facing, when you don’t know all the facts, the history, the exact relationship or what all happened in the accident/death/illness.

And, I beg of you: please do not compare this loss of grief that they are facing to the death of a family pet. I love my pets, they are part of our family. But there is not one widow or parent of a deceased child that will say their loss was not quite as bad as losing Scruffy, or similar to when Whiskers crossed the rainbow bridge. Don’t say it.

“I’m praying for you/thinking of you…” Yes. Good. Much appreciated. This is also a safe phrase that shows compassion and leaves the grieving person feeling not quite so alone. Knowing that others care and are not forgetting about the grieving person or the loved one that passed away means a lot.

  • Please take this a step further. Don’t write, “praying for you,” and then scroll down to the next Facebook post. Stop and pray.
  • Pray for specific ways that you hope God takes care of them.
  • Tell those specifics to the grieving person. “I’m praying for peace and comfort. I’m praying that God will hold you in his hands. I’m praying that you are able to get some sleep and eat and take care of yourself during this hard time. I’m thinking of you constantly. I’m praying that you do not feel alone and know that you are in my thoughts daily. I’m praying that you know how much you are loved and how many people want to help you on this journey…”
  • Take action. There’s a reason they popped into your head. Pray, call them, text them, mail a card, drop off treats at their door.

If all else fails: 

  • Say, “I don’t know what to say.” Or, “I wish I knew what to say.” Or, “This really sucks.” Those are all ok and honest.
  • Be genuine, caring, and don’t feel the need to fill the air with words that might not be helpful. Embarrassingly, I recently walked into a visitation and said to a grieving sibling, “How are you?” …I quickly said, “Well that was a stupid question. I’m sorry.”
  • A hug or an offer to get them a tissue or glass of water is always a good option, too, if you’re not sure what to say or do.

 

Thank you for reading this to the end.  There have been many sudden deaths recently of family and friends that have me wanting to offer advice to those that truly want to take care of their loved ones facing this tough road ahead.

Stay tuned for the next topic in the series – you won’t want to miss it.

4 thoughts on “What to say (and not say) to a grieving person.

  1. As always thank you for your wisdom on the subject Bethany. I have said dumb things and I have says smart things. When we know better we do better.
    I don’t like it when people say I’m sorry for your loss. I didn’t lose a wallet or keys you lost a person. Say ‘I’m sorry about Kevin’ I’m sorry about (the name of the person). I’m sorry about your mother. That’s a pet peeve of mine. But the rest of what you said is spot on.

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  2. Aaahh Bethany…thank you so very much for your wisdom in your writings. This one is so helpful for so many! God is blessing you with words and you in turn are blessing those of us who read your blog.

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  3. I so appreciate you helping “us knuckleheads” that really care and want to say the heartfelt things do it better! I especially loved the prompt to really pray when you’ve promised that.

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