What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Loved One, According to a Grief Counselor
Every situation is different, but this advice can help you be more thoughtful with your words.
Grief is a complicated and personal thing that everyone experiences differently. That’s why, if someone else is the one grieving, it can be hard to know what to say to them. During such a painful and sensitive time, no one wants to say the wrong thing and make matters worse, but this hesitation is also what can keep us from saying the right thing. So, we talked to Jill Cohen, a New York City family grief counselor, for some general guidance about what to say to someone who lost a loved one or a family member.
For starters, she encourages people not to hesitate to reach out to someone who is going through grief. It’s common for people to worry that bringing up the death will be uncomfortable or will make the person who is grieving sad, but, as a client once told Cohen about this thought process, “It’s not like if you don’t bring it up, I’ll forget that my dad died.” Letting a person know you’re thinking of them can help bring their grief into the light and make the experience feel less like something they have to go through all alone. You can also think of it like this: Just as it would be appropriate to send a “Get Well Soon” card to someone who was in an accident and was physically injured, it’s also appropriate to acknowledge when someone is grieving and in emotional pain.
Of course, the way you reach out (by phone call, text, letter, etc.) and what you should say will depend on the situation and your relationship with the person who’s grieving. So, to get a better idea of what to say, what not to say, and how to say something without using any words at all, keep reading below.
What to say to someone who lost a loved one or family member:
Personalize your condolences.
One of the most common phrases people say to someone who is grieving is “I’m sorry for your loss.” While Cohen says this phrase isn’t particularly harmful to say, it can get redundant and lack meaning. So, she says it’s better to try to personalize the statement however you can. You can directly acknowledge the bereaved person’s pain by saying something like, “I can’t imagine how hard this must be,” or “I was so sorry to hear the news about your loved one.”
Then, if you knew the deceased personally, you can mention something about them, like, “I know how important they were to you,” or “They were always so kind and caring.” If you didn’t know the deceased, saying, “I’m thinking of you” is also a simple way to let someone know that you care without feeling quite as formal as, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Share stories about the lost loved one.
If you had a personal relationship or connection to the person who died, don’t be afraid to share a positive memory or association you have about them. In some cases, these stories and memories can have much more of an impact than more general condolences. As one client explained to Cohen, “I know that [my loved one] died. I want to know how [they] lived.” Sharing a sweet story about the deceased can help the person who’s grieving feel closer to their lost loved one and learn more about the impact of their life.
However, Cohen cautions to read the room and not simply launch into a story out of nowhere. If the person who’s grieving seems to be in an especially fragile state, Cohen recommends first asking, “Would it be okay if I shared a couple of stories?” These stories might be about a time the person helped you out or how they made the best mac and cheese—anything about that person’s “generosity or traits that really honor someone’s life or impact,” Cohen says.
Don’t say, I know how you feel.
If you lost the same family member as the person who’s grieving or you’ve recently gone through grief of your own, you may be tempted to say, “I know you feel.” The simple truth, however, is that you don’t. Every relationship and every loss is different and only the person grieving can truly know how they feel. Instead, Cohen says, “I would say, ‘I can’t imagine how you feel right now,’ because that shows the other person I’m not even going to compete with you.” You can also acknowledge the difficulty of a situation, saying something like, “This must be such a difficult time,” without asserting that you understand that person’s individual pain.
Don’t say, They’re in a better place, or, It’s for the best.
Saying someone is “in a better place” assumes that the bereaved person holds religious or spiritual beliefs about the afterlife. Even if you believe this to be true, it’s not your place to tell the bereaved person how they should handle a loss or what they should believe, especially if you don’t know their religious affiliation.
People often make statements like, “They’re in a better place,” and, “It’s for the best,” in circumstances in which the deceased person was sick or in a lot of pain before their death. No matter the situation, however, this kind of statement enforces a certain mindset on a person who’s grieving, rather than encouraging them to experience their grief in their own way. “Now, if I said to you, ‘It’s a relief that my husband died because the pain was awful and he wasn’t going to survive it,’ that’s up to me to say,” Cohen says.
Cohen says that it’s important to let the person who’s grieving tell you how much they want you to know about the death, rather than digging for information. Prying for details about the circumstances of the death is insensitive and can cause more pain to someone who is grieving.
Cohen provided an example scenario in which someone asked the grieving person if they were present at the time of their mom’s death. “Well, if they stepped out of the room at the time that their mom died and I asked them that question, that’s just not okay, because it’s going to bring up a lot of guilt and maybe they think you should have been in there maybe,” she says. Oftentimes, you won’t know the exact circumstances of someone’s death and it shouldn’t matter, anyway. Instead, focus on how you can support the person who is grieving.
Offer an act of service.
People will often ask a friend who’s grieving what they can do to help them or to let them know if they need anything. While the intentions behind this are usually good, Cohen explains that most people who are grieving will say they don’t need anything or won’t want to make the effort to tell someone when they do. “It’s too complicated when you’re grieving” to figure out and tell people what assistance you need from them. So, in order to take some of the responsibility off of the person grieving, Cohen recommends being proactive and offering up a specific act of service. For example, if the person has kids, you can offer to take them off their hands for a few hours, or if they go to church, you can offer to drive or go with them.
Cohen suggests thinking of things that are necessary but often overlooked in someone’s life when they’re grieving. This could be something as simple as refiling the water pitchers in their fridge or offering to go for a walk with someone to encourage them to get outside. “Be proactive in helping to make the griever live more comfortably or feel less isolated,” Cohen says.
Send a thoughtful gift.
If you live far away or are unable to visit someone who is grieving in person, sending them a thoughtful gift can be a great way to show you care. When thinking of what to send someone who is grieving, think of “things that are unique, practical, and meaningful,” Cohen suggests.
She specifically recommends gifting a cozy throw blanket. “When people are grieving they’re at home, they’re in bed, they’re watching more TV, they’re reading, they’re hanging out,” she explains. “So that [gift is] saying, ‘I want you to be comfy and cozy.'” She also recommends sending a nice frame, since they will likely be looking to remember their loved one with pictures around the house, or a plant in their honor. A small memorial tree, like this one from Etsy, is a long-lasting gift and can be a great way for someone to remember their loved one.
And sometimes, it’s best to say nothing at all and just be present.
“Unless you’re a pretty unique person, your words are not gonna make the shift in the [grieving person] feeling happy again.” So, instead, if you’re able to go to a funeral or be with the person during their time of grief, just be present and show them that you’re there to listen.