Supporting a Grieving Person The Right Way (What to Say and What Not to Say)
Although grief is universal, it is also a very personal experience
No two people experience grief the same way.
This can make the experience extremely isolating and make it challenging for you to give emotional support to the grieving person.
While grief is an inner journey, it requires an outer expression. That’s where you come in.
In this article, you’re going to learn how to support a grieving person the right way.
Ready? Let’s get started!
Why Speaking From “The Mind” Doesn’t Work?
Moving on from grief is about healing a broken heart, not a broken brain.
Comments such as, “Don’t feel bad,” and “At least she’s not suffering anymore,” are intellectually accurate. But, for a broken heart, these statements are not only irrelevant, but they are also unintentionally abusive because they belittle the griever’s natural and normal emotions.
Grief By Association
Grieve is a powerful emotion that affects not only the griever, but everyone around him. This is called grief by association.
You may find yourself feeling many of the same feelings as the griever. If the death was sudden, you may be in shock.
You may even feel angry that the death ever happened.
You may feel uncomfortable and powerless to help the person who’s grieving.
Helping someone who’s grieving, you need to keep in mind two important things:
(1) be there, and
This means not avoiding the person who’s grieving or avoid talking about their loss but rather visit with him, sit with him at lunch or dinner.
Sometimes there is nothing you need to say. The most important thing is to help the griever talk about his loss and externalize his pain.
You can help by keeping the conversation going and asking him how he’s doing.
In fact, grief is not an event; it’s an ongoing journey that may take months and sometimes years.
6 Things to Avoid Saying to a Grieving Person
Even with the best of intention, we might end up saying the wrong thing to someone who is grieving.
Unfortunately, a grieving person is likely to magnify everything that is said (or not said).
What’s worse, is that intense emotions can hyperactivate the memory making the person more likely to remember every detail around the death and the period afterward.
This is a list of things to avoid saying to a grieving person:
#1. Things That Start With “At Least”
In this case, you try to reason with the person that their situation could have been worse.
- At least she’s not suffering anymore.
- At least you won’t have to take care of her anymore.
- At least he lived a good, long life.
- At least you have other children (or can have more).
#2. Things Suggesting That You Know What They Are Going Through
Grief is a very personal experience. Even if you have experienced a similar loss, you can’t know how the person who’s grieving is feeling.
- I know exactly how you feel.
- My mother passed away last year so I get what you’re going through.
- You’re in the denial stage. It will pass.
- You’ll feel better once you get through the first year.
#3. Things to Get Them to Stop Grieving
The grieving person’s grieving process may be lengthy, but trying to pull him out of their grief, is usually not helpful.
- You have to let her go.
- You need to move on.
- You have to be strong.
- You have so much to live for.
#4. Things Suggesting That The Loss Is Replaceable
There is no replacement for our loved ones. Trying to get the person to find a replacement isn’t likely to make their grief any easier.
- You’re young, you will have more children.
- You’re beautiful, you will marry again.
- Are you going to get a new dog?
#5. Statements Containing Judgements
There are especially hurtful.
- You should be over it by now.
- Why are you crying? Or why aren’t you crying?
- Your father wouldn’t want you to be sad.
- It’s just a cat.
- You need to think about your family.
- I didn’t realize you were so close.
These clichés are often used when we don’t know what else to say.
- He’s in a better place.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- Time heals all wounds.
What Can You Say Instead?
5 Things You Can Say to Support a Grieving Person
The truth is, nothing you can say would take the grieving person’s pain away. But a few kind words can be all that person needs.
#1. Things That Show Appreciation
Express appreciation and respect toward the deceased loved one.
- Your dad was such a generous guy; he used to share everything he has…
- I remember how funny your dad was and how he would start a conversation with everyone…
- Your husband helped me out so many times. I remember one time he…
- It was a real honor to know him/her.
#2. Things That Provide Positive Reinforcement
This is when you share some of the nice things the deceased person said about the grieving person.
- He told me how proud he was of you.
- She was so grateful to have you as her son.
- He absolutely adored you.
- She used to talk about you all the time.
#3. Things That Provide Emotional Support
This is especially appreciated after some time, when everyone else has gone back to their own lives, or on anniversaries and special occasions.
- I’m here for you.
- Call or stop in anytime – my door is always open to you.
- I’ll check in on you tomorrow.
#4. Offering Help
Even when you suggest for the grieving person to let you know if they needed anything, they probably aren’t going to reach out when they need something.
It’s appreciated when you take the initiative and check in by phone or in person.
- I’m on my way to the grocery store. Can I bring you something from there?
- Do you want some company this afternoon?
#5. Things That Validate Their Emotions
When we feel judged or invalidated, we hide and deny our emotions and avoid talking about them. The more you validate the grieving person’s emotions, the more likely they are to open up and feel better.
- Do you want to talk about it?
- I hear you.
- I can see how hard this is for you.
- You’re allowed to cry.
- It’s okay to be angry.
- You have every right to feel that way.
How to Have Meaningful Conversations?
#1. The Processing Conversation
This conversation helps the grieving person process what happened, their reaction to their loss, and how they are experiencing life in the aftermath of it.
Understanding what happened is the first step toward healing.
Supporting the grieving person, you can ask about:
- What happened?
- How did their loved one die?
- What are they going through as a result of their loss?
- What thoughts they have been grappling with and dwelling on?
Experiencing a major loss will likely leave the grieving person shocked and confused. Talking about their loss can help them make sense of what happened and ease their shock.
The “processing conversation” is not likely to be one single conversation, but many conversations.
If the grieving person doesn’t want to talk about it, it’s okay. Sometimes opening up is simply a matter of timing and readiness.
#2. The Impact Conversation
Losing a loved one has countless impacts on the grieving person and involves many adjustments.
The goal of an impact conversation is to talk about the impact of the grieving person’s loss on different areas of their life (psychologically, in relationships with others, social life, in family dynamics, professionally, financially)
Here are some questions you can ask to start looking at the impact of their loss:
- How have your relationships traditions changed?
- How has this affected you financially?
- How has this loss impacted you professionally?
- How has this affected you socially?
- What further impacts are you worried about — what’s still at stake?
#3. The Identity Conversation
The loss of someone significant changes how the person sees themselves and how they relate to the world, and can create gaps in their identity.
The goal of identity conversation is to help the grieving person make sense of how their loss has affected their sense of self and how they see themselves in the world.
Here are some questions you can ask:
- What parts of your identity have been affected by your loss?
- In what ways has this loss affected your self-image?
- How differently do you see yourself now after your loss as compared to before?
- In what ways were you defined by the relationship you had with your loved one?
- How do you see yourself without your loved one?
#4. The Emotional Conversation
The goal here is to help the grieving person understands their feelings surrounding the death of their loved one.
While most people find it uncomfortable to talk about their feelings, especially in times of grief, leaving them bottled up will only lead to further build-up.
We cannot heal what we cannot feel.
Supporting the grieving person, you need to help him feel validated and comfortable enough to express them openly.
Here are some questions you can ask to help the grieving person process their emotions:
- What emotions have you been experiencing?
- How have you been handling your emotions? Do you acknowledge or deny them?
- Do you trust yourself to handle your own emotions?
- What benefits do you believe are involved in talking about emotions?
Things You Can Do to Support a Grieving Person
#1. Be Aware of Disenfranchised Grief
Disenfranchised grief refers to a grief experience that’s not openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially accepted, such as the loss of a pet, perinatal loss, loss of a loved one who is not “blood-related”.
But there is no hierarchy to grief.
The mourner’s grief is as strong and painful as their attachment was to the loved one who died.
The grief following the death of a pet may be stronger than that of the death of a family member.
#2. Don’t Assume That Their Emotional Needs Are Being Met
Often, we assume that a friend or a co-worker who’s grieving has his own needs met by their family and close friends.
That’s not always the case. In fact, oftentimes, family and friends avoid or abandon grievers because they are uncomfortable witnessing the painful process of grief.
Many people don’t know how to support someone who’s grieving so they instead do nothing.
You don’t have to worry about what you should say. Grieving is not about logic, it’s about the heart. You just need to be there and allow the person to talk about their loss.
#3. Ask How You Can Help
Don’t no for an answer right off.
Many people have a hard time knowing what they want and/or accepting help.
You may make a specific suggestion, like asking if you could babysit the kids, or run an errand for them, or do house chores, etc.
#4. Get Comfortable With Grief Emotions
Acknowledge grief emotions and allow the person grieving to express them.
Resist the impulse to look the other way, or pretend you didn’t notice that their eyes are red from crying, or change the subject
Rather, tell them you’re sorry and invite them to talk about it.
#5. Attend The Funeral
Funerals are our way of saying goodbye to the deceased loved one. They also help us acknowledge the reality of the loss and begin our grief journey.
Attending the funeral is a great way to support those most impacted by the death, even if you didn’t know the person who died personally.
#6. Help With the Details
After a death, there is a lot to attend to.
Offer your help to plan the funeral and other details following a death, including:
- make phone calls to friends and relatives.
- coordinate lodging for out-of-town guests.
- help write the obituary.
- select and work with the caterer.
- run errands, grocery shop.
Here is a checklist for what to do when a loved one dies.
#7. Make a Meal
Mourners usually don’t have enough energy and may find it difficult to manage all the tasks of daily living.
Make a meal for the person who’s grieving or grocery shop for them.
#8. Listen Without Judgment
Listening without judgment can be difficult, especially when it comes to grief.
This is mainly because feelings can be irrational but also listening to someone who’s grieving can leave us feeling helpless and ineffectual.
Remind yourself that grief is not about logic, it’s about emotions and that the best thing you could give is a compassionate ear.
#9. Take Care of Yourself
Grief is hard on the mourner, but supporting others in grief can also be draining.
It’s important to take care of yourself when supporting a mourner.
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- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Conscious Grief & Loss Guide, © 2020 by Lise Leblanc. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Healing Grief at Work: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Workplace Is Touched by Loss, © 2005 by Lise Leblanc. All rights reserved.