When it comes to grief and grieving how do you know what to say and not say? We all hope to say the “correct” thing to the person who is grieving. In that moment, the most important thing to know is that there is no “right” thing to say to your loved one who is grieving.

Let me start by sharing the things you shouldn’t say (and I’ve said most of them) to someone who is grieving. Before I knew better I used to tell people that I understood, that things would be ok, or that I could relate. I would try comforting them by reminding them of positive things to come. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. I’ve learned the hard way that these phrases aren’t comforting or helpful to someone who is grieving.


What you can do

Acknowledge that things aren’t ok. I’ve felt most at peace with someone who can just be with me. People who are ok with my ugly sobbing and ok knowing they can’t fix it (or me).

If you want to check in say, “How are you doing TODAY?” Don’t forget the “today” piece, it’s the most important word in the sentence.

Effort

Putting in effort means the world to that person! I was not motivated to cook in the years leading up to my mother’s death and definitely not in the month or so following her death. Remember when people used to drop off casseroles when someone passed? This act of kindness occurred in the 80’s and 90’s (when casserole pans were typically orange in color).

Effort = feed people! You don’t cook? That’s ok! Want to modernize the concept of the orange casserole dishes? Great! Send someone a Doordash or Grubhub giftcard. With just a push of a button they can have food delivered to their door. Is there a better way to love someone? Not in my opinion.

The friends who dropped things off at my front door, sent DoorDash gift cards, and care packages are magical humans whom I will cherish forever. They knew (or learned) the secret sauce for taking care of someone who needed to grieve privately.

Social Media

If you’re like most people you may not know what to say when the passing of a person or Celebration of Life announcement is posted. It’s important to show that you care but how? Let’s rate them in terms of Best, Mediocre, and Better to not say anything at all.

Best

  • Sharing a story or memory of the person who passed
  • A heartfelt post about how they influenced you or improved your life
  • Appreciation for them in your life (make it personal)
  • Sincere empathy for your loss (more than just 3-4 words)

Mediocre

  • Sorry for your loss
  • Thinking of you during this difficult time
  • So sorry to hear of your loved one’s passing
  • My condolences
  • Praying for you and your family during this difficult time

Better to not say anything

  • Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you
    • Try to not give the grieving person the task of reaching out to you
  • God has a plan for everyone
    • Reminder: Everyone has different spiritual and religious beliefs.
  • RIP
    • Consideration: This phrase is often seen around Halloween time and may not come across as genuine
  • God is closer to you than ever right now
    • Not everyone who is grieving will feel the strong presence of God
  • At least…
    • Finishing this sentence with any words may be cringe-worthy to the person grieving

Flowers

This seems to be a sensitive subject so let’s just dive right in. The memorial announcement you’ve just received states “in lieu of flowers” and this could mean a variety of things:

  1. The person doesn’t know how to transport or know where to put them.
  2. Flowers die which serves as another reminder that your loved one has died.
  3. Flowers must be watered and cared for. In the days following a loved one’s death just taking a shower may seem like a herculean task.

If it says “in lieu of flowers” consider other acts of kindness. Give to their charity of choice or send an electronic gift card for food delivery. Either way, you are showing that you care and are thinking of them.

Talking about it

If they want to talk about their loved one’s death the person may not be comfortable talking about it right away. Recognize the space that is needed for the person to open up. Talk lightly and try not to complain about the challenges in your life to open up space to talk. If they don’t open up, don’t push it. Just being with someone is probably taking their mind off their loved one’s death more than when they were alone.

Saying nothing at all

Squeeze their hand, give them a hug, or show them a genuine, empathetic look that shows that you care for them. Don’t try and fake it. Once you’re in the “I’ve lost someone very, very close to me club” (which is a terrible club to be in by the way) you can subconsciously identify fake empathy.

Can you relate? No

Can you understand what that person is going through? No.

And that’s ok! Empathy is not vocalizing that things will eventually be ok but, instead, recognizing that things are not ok.


What NOT to do

Yes, we need to talk about this because we’ve probably all made one of these mistakes. It’s important to note that this list will change depending on the person who is grieving.

Don’t add your problems or complaints onto their grieving moment.

Don’t complicate their grief. Being overly sad, especially if you didn’t know the person well, can saturate their grief. The person may feel lost in a sea of sadness without knowing where to turn.


Stages of grief

Grief in a Nutshell

Grief is deeply personal. There isn’t a “right” way to grieve. Grief is one’s own personal journey and everyone experiences it differently. I became a very private griever (off the grid extreme). The few times I tried to tell people about my mom’s diagnosis or passing statements like “I understand, I have a grandma with Alzheimer’s” or “That sucks, I’m also going through a tough time with… add in the person’s stress/issue here ” were said.

When people try to relate to someone who is grieving the person who is grieving likely won’t know what to say. No situation is the same. Pain is universal but you are not experiencing the same pain as the other person. Just be there for the person, don’t try to relate or understand. These are mistakes I’ve made time and time again myself.

One of my newest friends gave me the best card. It says “Praying for a calm mind and a healing heart as you grieve”. Yes, that’s exactly what I needed to hear. I need to be able to sleep through the night without nightmares and I need my heart to heal from this loss. It was a perfectly worded, heartfelt saying so feel free to copy the phrase to share to those you love who may be grieving.

We will all lose someone close to us in our lifetime. Knowing how to best support one another is perhaps the best gift you can give someone during those difficult times. I highly recommend the book “On Death and Dying“. It’s an eye-opener and especially important to read before someone you love becomes ill.

“There are really only two stages of grief, …who you were before and who you are after.” Ted Rynearson