Knowing what to say to someone who is grieving

What do you say to someone who has lost a loved one? Do you approach the subject, and maybe risk causing upset, or do you just let it go? Do you make phone calls or hold off so you don’t feel like you’re intruding? Do you offer encouragement and suggestions or simply listen?

These are difficult questions for many of us. While no one “prescription” is appropriate for every situation, the good news is that by following the guidelines laid out below we can be more helpful to our loved ones in grief — all while taking some of the anxiety and uncertainty out of the situation.

To approach or not?

“My friend John lost his wife about six months ago. I never know if I should mention her name or not. I don’t want to upset him, but I also don’t want him to think I don’t care.”

One of the most consistent comments I hear from people in grief is their disappointment that their friends, family and other loved ones seemed to disappear soon after the funeral.

“They all seem to just go on with their lives. When they can, they avoid me. When they can’t, they avoid saying anything about my loss.”

In the right situations, many people in grief will describe that their strong preference is to talk about their deceased loved one. “I would rather cry than feel like she doesn’t matter to anyone anymore.” For someone in grief, it can be very heartwarming to hear a favorite memory that you have of their loved one.

This being said, let me re-emphasize that when having these conversations, the situation does matter. For instance, if your co-worker is back to work on his first day after being out for a while, his strong preference may be to simply focus on getting through the day.

There are other ways you can show you care and offer support, however. You can still make an effort to say hello and welcome him back — and leave it at that for the first day. But do keep in mind that everyone is different. In this same situation, there are those who will want to talk about their loved one.

In general, it’s better to approach than to avoid. It feels better to have a lost loved one be acknowledged, even if it brings tears, than to feel he or she has been forgotten. It is also important to consider the situation and to be sensitive. When you still don’t know what to do, you can always just say something like, “I’m here if you’d like to talk but I can also understand if you don’t feel up to it.”

To compliment or not?

“My aunt lost her partner three weeks ago. When I’ve seen her, she seems to be doing OK. She has her makeup on and is dressed well. She even smiles and laughs sometimes. I want to tell her how strong she is — is that OK?”

There can be a strong temptation to pay a compliment to someone in grief. We may simply want to help him or her feel better, to offer encouragement. Those in grief, however, often feel otherwise. I’ve heard those in grief say, “I’m not strong, I’m numb.”

When we’ve suffered a major loss, it often takes weeks and even months for the reality of that loss to set in

“It just feels like he’s on a business trip and will be home in a week. I know in my head that’s not true, but it still feels like he’s coming back.”

The shock and numbness comes and goes, but eventually wears off completely. When it does wear off, those in grief may simply avoid social situations wherever possible. You are in all likelihood not seeing them in their most difficult moments. To say something like, “You look good” or “You’re so strong” can actually feel invalidating.

“When you tell me how strong I am, it feels like you don’t really know how I’m doing.”

Relieve yourself from any pressure to say something nice or uplifting. If your loved one looks or seems fine, it’s better to ask than to make an assumption. As long as you have the time and intention to truly listen, you can always ask, “How are you doing?”

What to expect

“My Dad died seven months ago. My Mom hasn’t been the same since. My parents were married for 40 years. I’m now 37, and I’m busy with work and kids, so I can’t be there with my Mom all the time. When my Dad died I was very sad but I needed to get back to my life. My Mom just never moved on. How do I encourage her?”

One of the biggest misconceptions about grief is just how long the active grief process takes. Many grief experts — and many bereaved — even say that when you lose someone close to you, you’re never done grieving. In my experience working with people who have lost their spouse or partner, the active grief phase typically lasts at least several years. Yes, that is “years” with an “s.” People do not get over losing a spouse in a year. In fact, many bereaved people describe that grief intensifies after several months and in some ways is more difficult in the second year.

“I survived all the holidays, our anniversary and the other milestones. Everyone else has gotten back to their own lives. Now I’m just alone. Everyday I come home to that empty house. It’s so quiet. ”

It can be very challenging to stand by and watch a loved one struggle for so long. This is often why we’re so inclined to offer advice or make suggestions. That said, think twice before giving unsolicited advice. And if you still want to give advice, think a third time. Are you in a position to give advice? Do you know from first-hand experience what your loved one’s grief is like? And if you have lost someone or multiple people who are very close to you, can you automatically assume that you know what everyone’s grief is like?

If you are very concerned about your loved one’s well-being — for instance, he or she is not eating or attending to basic self-care — you can certainly raise the possibility of seeking professional help. Otherwise the best we can do is seek to understand, to be present, to offer our support, to listen. And most importantly, be patient. You can simply communicate something like, “I know this takes a long time. Just know I’m here for you.”

It is not always easy to know how to be there for someone in grief. Death and dying is not something our modern society is comfortable talking about. But with a little more awareness of the grief experience, we can go a long way to help our loved ones. Staying connected with our loved ones in grief, even when it’s difficult, can end up mattering so much more than you might imagine.