What to Say, and What Not To Say, to People Who Are Grieving

Carol Bradley Bursack | June 23, 2017

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It’s difficult to know exactly what to say to someone suffering from grief, since words or actions that comfort one person can feel like a slap in the face to another. Yet most of us want to offer comfort when a person whom we care about is grieving the imminent death of a loved one, or after such a death has occurred. Following are tips that may help you find the right words, or at least some passable words, as well as advice from caregivers and spouses who’ve been through tough times.

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Where are they spiritually?

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Is the person comfortable with religious references, such as talk about God, or do you have the feeling that a religious reference would make them feel uncomfortable, or worse, misunderstood? Most importantly, does the person whom you want to comfort believe that the spirit lives on, or does he feel that death is the end of all life? Form your words using this knowledge, but if you don’t know where they stand on spirituality, err on the side of no religious references.

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Ask the person in grief to tell you about their loved one

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No matter what a person’s position on religion or spirituality is, most people will appreciate an offer to listen to them talk about their loved one. Tell your friend that you’d love to take her out for coffee so that she can tell you more about the person for whom she grieves. Many people in grief say that friends are afraid to say the name of a person who died. Don’t be one of those. Remembering their loved one may be all that they have left to comfort them.

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Keep it simple unless you know the person well

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“I’m so sorry” may be the safest words to use when offering sympathy to someone who you don’t know well. If you’re comfortable with it, you could add, “This must be a difficult time.” Yes, these words may be a cliché, but clichés generally become such because they work. Unless you know the person well enough to say, “I’m sorry for you, but at least her suffering is over,” just don’t. Simply say, “I’m so sorry.”

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Expect the unexpected response

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People in grief are, understandably, touchy and even unpredictable. Expect that. Even your best friend who wanted her suffering mother to die so that her mom could be in peace may cringe at a reference to that attitude right after the death. Grief is individual and fluid, so the person’s feelings could change many times a day. Again, stay on the safe side and keep your words simple, at least at first. Only very close friends should tread more tricky territory.

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Even with age variances, grief is grief

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Losing one’s parents to death is generally painful, but that follows the course of nature. Therefore, you may have more insight with a contemporary who has lost aging parents than you would with a friend who has lost a child. Still, no matter whom the person is grieving, watch your words. An 80-year-old spouse may expect her mate to die, yet she may still be devastated. No matter the circumstance, your friend is still hurting.

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Just be with them

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“It’s more than words,” says Dale Carter, Owner of Transition Aging Parents. “It’s the childhood friend who left work every night to ‘be with me’ as I sat with my mother in her dying weeks. … Val would never know quite the physical or emotional state she’d find me in each evening. The night before Mom died, I reached a breaking point. I sat slumped at the end of a corridor on the floor, hysterical. Val sat down next to me, took me in her arms and held me until I found understanding.”

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Visit your friend long after the funeral

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“Say, ‘Whatever you need, I’m here for you,’” says another caregiver. “And do it! Most of all, continue to visit or call long after a funeral. Most people are there at the beginning, and then mainly they are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. Just call or visit and ask, ‘What can I help with?’ even if it is just to listen to them talk about their loved one. It’s OK to share stories with them. Tears are OK.”

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Bringing food is always good, right?

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Surprisingly, one of the most frequent complaints that I’ve heard from caregivers about how grief is handled by others is that too many people bring food. It’s not that a meal isn’t appreciated, but traditionally people have thought that comfort food is the answer to this awkward situation, so a grieving widow who can’t stand the thought of food is suddenly inundated with countless casseroles, side dishes, and sweets, all of which need to be stored in her overloaded refrigerator.

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Ask what is needed or wait to bring food

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It’s not that the heart behind the gesture of bringing food isn’t appreciated, but these people said the overload of food was just an extra headache for them. Food can be a helpful contribution, but wait awhile and then ask if you can drop off a meal to help feed visiting family, or better yet, wait until things settle down and the widow or grieving adult child is left alone and could really use the food and your company.

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Hold them and pray

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Joy Golliver, a widow and the owner of Touched by Joy, tells me that the most helpful thing is to say nothing. “Hold them and pray with them,” Joy said. “Then quietly do small things that you see need to be done.” Joy also says, “Don’t deliver tons of food they don’t need. You could act as a coordinator of this if you are close.”

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You don’t know how they feel

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Several people were emphatic about never saying that you know how the person feels. Even if you think that your situation has been similar to theirs, everyone is different. Many people will feel a confused sense of grief and relief after the death of someone who has suffered for a long time. Don’t make it worse. From TodaysSeniorsNetwork.com came this advice: “One never knows what someone else is going through.”

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Don’t say it will be OK

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Lisa Feit, a caregiver who lost her mother to dementia, said this: “Don’t say, ‘It will be OK.’ It will not be OK for a long time. Instead say, ‘I know you are going through a lot. Is there anything I can help you with?’" Everyone grieves differently and has their personal timeline. Right after a death is not the time to offer platitudes about moving forward.

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More hated platitudes to avoid

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“Everything happens for a reason,” one person said in an email.

“Your loved one is better off and they’re resting now are very insensitive,” says nebraskanurse68. “I’d rather people be silent, I can respect that,” she concluded.

Another person emailed these phrases: “God is teaching you something” and “At least you should be glad that …” “Hated all of these,” she said.

One more emailed hated response that came from several people is: “You’re going to have to put this behind you and move on.”

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Takeaway

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After viewing these slides, you may think that offering comfort is so complicated that you want to avoid your grief- stricken friends or relatives entirely. That is the worst thing that you can do. The cardinal rule is to keep it simple. Offer your sympathy. Again, “I’m so sorry,” may be the safest thing that you can say. Yes, you may still offend someone, perhaps because they felt that you should have said more, but that’s not your fault. Love and compassion will guide you in the future.