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.
Let me start by sharing the many 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 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.
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 = feeding 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 people who dropped things off at my front door, sent DoorDash gift cards, and care packages are magical humans that I will cherish forever. They knew (or learned) the secret sauce for taking care of someone who needed to grieve privately.
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.
- 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)
- Sorry for your loss
- Thinking of you during this difficult time
- So sorry to hear of your mom’s passing
- My condolences
- Praying for you and your family during this difficult time
Better to not say anything at all
- Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you
- Question: Are you giving the grieving person homework to reach out to you?
- God has a plan for everyone
- Reminder: Everyone has different spiritual and religious beliefs. Even you are a strong follower of God his plan likely won’t “feel” like a great plan in that moment.
- 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
- This may come as a surprise but not everyone who is grieving will feel the strong presence of God.
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:
- The person doesn’t know how to transport the flowers or where to put them.
- Flowers die which serves as another reminder that your loved one has died.
- Flowers must be watered are 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 onto their grieving moment.
I once had a friend tell me how terrible COVID had been for her. She expressed that she was in her home alone for a whole week without seeing anyone and that it almost broke her. Her feelings were real and her pain was real yet in that moment I knew I wouldn’t be able to open up to her about my mom. I was already nervous about people’s reactions. What would her reaction be if I told her that thanks to COVID my mom wasn’t able to leave her room in the memory care unit? How would she react when I shared my mom had been alone for months as we took turns spending time outside her window (during all the windy seasons the Midwest has to offer)? COVID sucked.
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.