8 Helpful Things To Say To Grieving People

From #7: Take a walk together. Sharing silence can be comforting...

From #7: Take a walk together. Sharing silence can be comforting…

In a prior post I identified comments and questions not to say to those who are grieving.

But what might be helpful things to say or do? Below are eight suggestions.

With these eight, I’m reminded of a theme in the grief support groups I’ve led: everyone’s grieving is different. None of my proposed “good” words or actions represents a magic formula. Don’t (oops, a “don’t!”) literally or figuratively copy and paste this list to any situation. Adapt it to who you are. Adapt it for the grieving person you seek to support.

(And as with the “bad” list, these sentences aren’t ranked from best to worst, or vice-versa.)

#1  I can’t imagine how you feel. Your friend/family member is flooded with powerful emotions, memories, and reactions unique to them. Often they don’t know how they feel, or why a few good hours or days in a row collapsed back into misery. But be ready to respond if your compassionate recognition of their distinctive grief leads them to ask how you coped with personal loss. If you’re able, carefully share your experiences. But honor the huge difference between telling someone what you think they should feel/do versus describing how you handled your difficult time.

#2  I will call you on _______ and hope we can have lunch (or ______) on ________. Fill in your own details. But when you talk to your grieving friend, be specific. And flexible. If you have a clear idea when you could share time, your friend understands you have dates and places in mind. They may respond by not having any available time (or interest) right now, but you’ve begun a conversation based on specifics. If they say, “Yes” to your offer, ta-da, you’ve got a date! If they say, “No,” then a conversation might continue that eventually matches both of your calendars.

#3  Is it okay for me to tell you a story about . . .? Maybe you’re with a grieving family member. Or at lunch or taking a work break with a few minutes to talk. Whether you know them well, or hardly at all, what if you have a story about the loved one who died? Ask permission to share the story. This prepares them to hear, and also gives an opportunity to say, “Not right now.” Those we love and those we grieve have had encounters with others. Hearing new stories can feel like receiving a gift. Maybe it will be an old military or college buddy telling about a funny incident. Maybe your niece or grandchild recalls when they were a kid and your loved one made a wonderful (or weird) impression on them. A good tale adds to the treasure of memories.

#4  Let me help you with ______. This is also rooted in specificity. When with your grieving friend, let them know how you can help. In a recent grief group, a participant told about how his uncle raked leaves from the yard before the family Thanksgiving gathering. In the most recent Thanksgiving, he went over early and did that task for his grieving aunt. He plans to do it again. Can you take care of kids, accompany your grieving family member when they choose the gravestone, drive him/her to the doctor’s office, or _______? However you know the one who died, and the ones who grieve, I’ll wager you have a good clue about what chores might need done, or what appointments are easier when two go together.

#5 - Put the dish you bring over on the “good stuff.”

#5 – Put the meal you bring over on the “good stuff.”

#5  I’ll bring over food. Bonus: make it homemade food. Or ignore the bonus, because you’re a lousy cook, or don’t have time to fix anything, so . . . fast food it is! However, here’s the true bonus: when you bring food to your grieving friend, put it on your best dish. Don’t put the casserole in an old plastic container that will be recycled and forgotten. Nope . . . put the meal you bring over on the “good stuff.” Why? Because a day or week later, you’ll knock at their door to get your dish back. Two visits! I first heard this suggestion from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who has written extensively on grief. Bringing food is a cliché, but it’s also a precious and generous act. People forget to eat when overwhelmed by loss. So provide a meal and a quick hug. Then retrieve your dish and give another hug and have another chance to talk. And maybe, bold you, you’ll come again, bearing another meal on another dish you eventually want back in your cupboard. A meal on a nice plate can be nourishment for soul and stomach.

#6  You’ve been in my thoughts* because of the death** of ______***. A heartfelt, “I’ve been thinking about you” can be huge when shared with the one who is grieving.

*Or if you’ve been praying for them, say so. While I overuse the phrase, “You have been in my thoughts and prayers,” it’s also often what I’ve been doing. Be simple. Be honest. Grieving people appreciate reminders that others are thinking and/or praying for them.

**If you prefer not to say, “death,” choose words comfortable for you. I’ve written elsewhere on words and phrases we use rather than death.

*** Speaking the name is a life-affirming choice. Will it cause tears? Unsettled responses? It’s possible. But, please, use the name. If you’re uncertain about it, that’s okay . . . after all, you may only know your “neighbor” in the next cubicle or pew or house had a loved one recently die. Of course you can’t use his/her name. But what if, gently, you asked for the name?

#7  Say nothing. Just be present. A hug or handshake can be a comforting thing to offer. Take a walk together. Sharing silence can be comforting. If you can’t be with them, a brief note/email can be sent. Don’t feel like a note (digital or “hard copy”) has to be a big production. For me, I usually type notes because my handwriting is awful! But, trust me, you don’t have to be profound.

#8  Contact your friend/family member months from now. A grieving person often receives support right after the death. Food and sympathy cards arrive. The published obit leads to calls, letters, and visits. But soon everyone returns to “normal.” However the one who experienced the death of their beloved is still unsettled. In the days after the death, put a reminder on your calendar for months later (or for a “special” time like a birthday or Thanksgiving). Whether you send a note, call, or share coffee . . . a down-the-road contact lets them know they aren’t forgotten.

And of course . . . #9  What is your suggestion for something to say or do: _______________

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This is far from a complete list. But I hope one or more of these suggestions starts or continues a conversation that helps you help a grieving person take another next step toward healing.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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