Say This (But Not That) to the Griever

If you settle down into a chair beside them what can you say?

In a recent bereavement call I made to a woman grieving her husband’s death, she abruptly stated, “I never like it when someone asks, ‘How are you doing?’”


I was glad I hadn’t posed that question to her, though I’ll bet the majority of my calls include a variation of that simple four-word query. She said she didn’t like the question because the answer was too obvious: she was feeling lousy, terrible, horrible, and sometimes worse . . . thank you very much. She easily cried and knew she needed to cry and didn’t want to cry. She missed her husband and the illness that took his life was unexpected and unfair. Dealing with dying and death and grief were all inevitable events she’d prefer to avoid.

But she couldn’t.

After all, no one skips death. Whether you have a relatively brief or a lifetime relationship with another—and it’s mostly a healthy, good, nurturing bond between two loving people—someone’s gonna die first.

After a death, some don’t want to talk. Some must. Some cry if you make eye contact with them. Some never cry. Some never want to back to work. Some plunge into their job right away. Grieving is not a one-size-fits-all response. But if a friend wants to share about a loved one, what can be done? If you settle down into a chair beside them what can you say?

A few thoughts . . .

  • Would you like to take a walk? Or go for coffee? Or sit for a spell in your backyard? Or head for a local bakery? Impossible when you phone/text/email, but any of these options can work in person. Being with another is sacred.
  • I’d like to spend time with you. In person, or on the phone, the conversation will likely include healthy silent time. Silence is fine. And please mention the name of the mutual friend/family member who died. Often people stop speaking the person’s name. Keep the shared stories alive.
  • Can I swing by a moment and bring . . . a casserole or blanket or scarf or bottle of wine or puzzle or anything that is truly appropriate to that particular friend. Bringing a relevant object provides the excuse for knocking on the door. Entering a grieving person’s home provides an opportunity for sharing and listening.
  • Once I asked a woman grieving the death of her husband, “How did you two meet?” For the next twenty minutes I heard the funny, revealing story about their courtship. And so . . . ask specific questions! If you want to ask about the kids or grandkids, use the names. Each child is different.
  • And sometimes, especially when you take time for the person’s answer, asking, “How are you doing?” will be just fine. It can start a life-giving chat.

(Notice how all of the above are being initiated by the friend or family member of the griever?)

There are several things I NEVER say to another:

  • I know how you’re feeling. But I don’t. I really, really don’t.
  • Call me if you need anything. No! Someone who is grieving needs you to call them!
  • It was his/her time. How could I ever know that?
  • This was God’s plan. Sorry, I don’t think God schemes to create our misery.
  • Time will heal. Of course it will, but right now time’s a beast.
  • Any version of any phrase that includes “At least.” At least you still have your health. At least he didn’t suffer longer. At least your house is paid for. At least she left you with good memories . . .
  • Unless asked, resist advice-giving. The article you read in Good Housekeeping while at the doctor’s office or on the web or what the friend of a friend said after their great-grandfather died is rarely worth repeating. (Which is to say, maybe you should ignore my suggestions . . . or at least be careful with them!)

What do you think are the best, or worst, things to say to a grieving friend or family member?

(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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  1. Reading this made me cry. Except for you calling, nobody did the “right thing”. I was left alone in my grief. She will be gone August 28 and I kn no one will mention it. It all makes me sad. And angry. This has been the saddest and angriest year of my life. I may be only the daughter but I did two months of home hospice care and spent the last three days with her at Hinds holding her hand when she died. This all makes me sad.

    • Those first anniversaries can be so hard, Alicia. I don’t think there is an ‘only’ when it comes to love or grief – as in ‘only the daughter’. It sounds like you were really there for your mother at such an incredibly intense time for both of you. What is her name?

    • Alicia:

      Sigh. I am so sorry. You may want to think about a grief support group? I wish I could explain why many won’t “mention it,” why even saying a name or telling a story after the death is avoided.

  2. If I was the one grieving, I would want some kind soul to tell me- “I am here for you.”

  3. Worst things: “I know how you feel” or “they’re in a better place”

    Best: hmmm… let’s go out for rolled ice cream!! I know the perfect place!! Can I come get you??

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