What to say when someone is grieving

There are no perfect words but across our years of experience we have observed a range of helpful and not so helpful things people do and say. Listening to the grieving person is perhaps the most appreciated thing you can do.

Just start with a simple “Hello, I’ve been thinking of you” or “I was so sorry to hear (Name of Deceased) died, they were such a lovely person.” This is often all you need to start someone talking. Listen. Then you can respond.

Remember that no matter how much we might want to, we cannot ‘fix it’ or make someone feel better. They are grieving and they need to feel what they are feeling.

At this point in time they are very focussed on the person who is gone. Trying to ‘take their minds off it’ or talking about your own grief experience can feel to them like you are trying to minimise their feelings.

Try to avoid phrases such as:

  • ‘They are in a better place’ (No, they should be here with me!)
  • ‘They’ve had a good innings’ (Yes, they may have but I still want them here)
  • ‘God only takes the best’ (What does that say for the rest of us?)
  • ‘You’re so strong’ (Uh oh I can’t let down my guard because people will think I’m weak)
  • 'You’ll start to feel better soon’ (It’s not an illness – it’s grief and I don’t want to ‘get over it’ or let go)
  • ‘At least they didn’t suffer’ (True, but it doesn’t make me feel any better)
  • ‘Well it’s not as bad as Bev down the road – she’s lost 2 husbands!’ (There are many sad stories but now is not the time to bring them up).

Give people time to tell their story. Some may need to share it over
and over.

It helps to listen and respond (without judging or minimising), use their loved one’s name, and to offer practical and emotional support. If appropriate, a warm hug lets grieving people know they are supported and that their feelings are important.

Never assume to know what a grieving person needs. Just ask.

Give someone options. Actions such as dropping off a meal, offering to pick up their children, mowing a lawn, asking them around for a cuppa, and dropping off groceries can be useful.

Offering something concrete or tangible is better than throw away offers such as “I’m here if you need or let me know if I can do anything.”

Grieving people often won’t ask for help, or don’t even know what they need. So little suggestions can be an easy way for them to accept your much needed support.

And don’t forget that it’s often after the funeral is over and everyone goes back to their ‘normal’ lives that the depths of grief can be most significantly felt. The reality of life ahead without their loved one can seem insurmountable.

That’s why staying in touch and offering support in the days, weeks and months to come is so important.