Sadness is an inevitable part of life, and there are countless reasons a person might feel grief, from the loss of a loved one to being diagnosed with a serious illness. (For our purposes, we’re not going to address that particular form of grief known as “My favorite team just got knocked out of the playoffs.” But here’s the short version: Buy your buddy lunch or a beer and remember the good times, even if his or her team is your team’s rival.)
Supporting a loved one going through such a time can be challenging, and finding the right thing to say or do can be awkward, especially if you’re fortunate enough to be inexperienced at it. Plus, everyone grieves differently, so there’s no single right or wrong approach. As with what makes us laugh, what makes us feel better is uniquely individual.
That all said, there are some guidelines you can follow, and part of the social contract that binds us together is understanding and following those guidelines. So, here are our suggestions for what to say—and perhaps just as importantly, what not to.
Recognize and honor the loss
This might sound obvious or even a little strange, but it’s the foundation of what you’re communicating: That you see, and even feel someone else’s pain. You’re letting someone know they’re not alone in what they’re going through. One friend of mine favors the phrase “I feel the pain of your loss,” which avoids the sometimes-awkward sentiment of “I’m sorry.” Practice it. Say it. Mean it.
Other simple go-tos, for anyone from a colleague you barely know to a longtime friend:
- “We all need help at times like this, and I am here for you.” (Suggested by David Kessler, who co-wrote On Grief & Grieving with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross of Five Stages of Grief fame.)
- “You and your loved one will be in my thoughts.” (Add “and prayers” if you’re a person of faith). Another chestnut from Kessler.
It’s good to offer help, but it’s even better to be specific
When you say “Let me know if I can help in any way,” you’ve made a nice gesture, but you’ve also given someone a job—finding you something to help with. Offer to pick up incoming relatives at the airport, however, and you’ve made someone’s life easier. Just be sure that when you say it, you mean it. Other things a grieving person might appreciate:
- Food. Bring over something he or she loves to eat, stay to share it (but don’t wear out your welcome), and clean up.
- Help with emails or phone calls. For example, setting up an auto-reply explaining that your friend will answer emails later.
- Help with thank you notes, or with the practical side of funeral arrangements (if relevant).
- Companionship, plain and simple. Especially after a month or more goes by, when people often start to fade away and return back to their regular routine.
If you don’t know what to say, say that
Sometimes, we don’t have the words. And that’s when you can say “I don’t have the words to express what I’m feeling.” That’s okay. This isn’t an English 101 exam. When appropriate, a gesture—a hug, holding someone’s hand—might express what words cannot.
Don’t try to fix it
Remember: What’s done is done, and grief is a perfectly natural response to the situation. Allow your friend/relative/colleague to feel their feelings. Offering suggestions or tips on how to take their mind off the pain might seem like a good idea, but it can potentially make a person feel ashamed of their grief. If you honestly feel like someone is wallowing in excessive self-pity, keep that to yourself.
However, if you feel someone is suffering and potentially at risk for self-harm, you should help them seek help.
Don’t put an expiration date on your sympathy—or their pain
It’s tempting to say something along the lines of “It’ll get better,” or “You’ll get through this.” The reality is these are life-altering situations. Sure, the intensity might subside, but a person will never get over, say, the loss of a parent. (Indeed, part of the pain is not knowing when or what might trigger the pain all over again, years or even decades later.)
Sometimes, the “less is more” approach works here. Say what you mean—that you see and recognize someone’s pain, and that you feel that pain with them and are available if they need you—and leave it at that.
Don’t try to rationalize it
This isn’t the time to share your philosophy of life with someone or put blame on the deceased or the sick. Listen, and follow the other person’s lead. This is about what he or she is feeling, not what you are thinking.
Some good (er, bad) phrases to avoid:
- “He’s in a better place now.” Even if someone was painfully ill, the preferred outcome was presumably health, not death.
- “She lived a full life.” First of all, you don’t know that. Second of all, even if it’s true, no doubt the grieving would prefer that person’s life had become even fuller.
- “You can have another child.” We would hope you already knew that, but a reminder can’t hurt.
Share a memory
When a friend’s dad passed away, I sent a note saying how much I enjoyed our one memorable experience together: At my friend’s bachelor party, when his dad regaled us with stories of his younger days. (Not all of those stories are appropriate to share here.) Again, this goes back to recognizing and seeing someone else’s pain and experience and sharing it with them. It’s about letting your friend know that their loved one had an impact on your life, too.
It’s not about you
Avoid the temptation to say “I know how you feel,” even if you’ve gone through a comparable experience. Simply put, it might not be true—and even if it is, it’s probably not top of mind for your friend.
Instead, admit that knowing how someone else feels is unknowable, but you are available if they ever want to talk. In fact, often times just asking them “do you want to talk about it?” is enough.
One overall piece of advice: A lot of this depends on how well you know the grieving person. If it’s a co-worker you rarely interact with, write something thoughtful on the card and maybe reach out if it’s appropriate. On the other hand, if it’s a dear friend or a close relative, treat the loss as if it’s your own. Helping someone to see that you have their back can be a very powerful and meaningful gesture.
Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.