While many of us worry about what to say to someone who is grieving, it’s actually more important to listen. Sometimes, people who mean well, avoid talking about the death or change the subject when the deceased person is mentioned. Or, knowing there’s nothing they can say to make it better, they try to avoid the grieving person altogether.
But the bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged, it’s not terrible to talk about it, and their loved one won’t be forgotten. One day they may want to cry on your shoulder, on another day they may want to vent, sit in silence, or share memories. Just by being there and listening to them can be a huge source of comfort and healing.
How to talk—and listen—to someone who’s grieving
While you should never try to force someone to open up, it’s important to let the person you care for know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk. Talk openly about the person who died and don’t steer away from the subject if the deceased’s name comes up. When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions—without coming across as being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express their feelings. By simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?” you’re letting them know that you’re there to listen.
Acknowledge the situation. For example, you could say something as simple as: “I heard that your father died.” By using the word “died” you’ll show that you’re more open to talk about how the grieving person really feels.
Express your concern. For example: “I’m sorry to hear that this happened to you.”
Let them talk about how their loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in real detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens. By listening patiently, you’re helping them to heal.
Ask how they feel. The emotions of grief can change rapidly so don’t assume you know how they are feeling. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it might help. Remember, though, that grief is an intensely individual experience. No two people experience it exactly the same way, so don’t claim to “know” what the person is feeling or compare your grief to theirs. Again, put the emphasis on listening and ask them to share how they are feeling.
Accept their feelings. Let them know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn’t feel. Grief is a highly emotional experience, so they need to feel free to share their feelings—no matter how irrational—without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
Be genuine. Don’t try to minimize their loss, provide simplistic solutions, or offer unsolicited advice. It’s far better to just listen to your loved one or simply admit: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if they don’t feel like talking. Often, comfort for them comes from simply being with you. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Offer your support. Ask what you can do for them. Offer to help with a specific task, such as helping with funeral arrangements, or just be there to have a cuppa or as a shoulder to cry on.
Things to avoid saying to someone who’s grieving
“It’s part of God’s plan.” This phrase can make people angry and they often respond with, “What plan? Nobody told me about any plan.”
“Look at what you have to be thankful for.” They know they have things to be thankful for, but right now they are not important.
“They’re in a better place now.” They may or may not believe this. Keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked.
“This is behind you now; it’s time to get on with your life.” Sometimes people are resistant to getting on with life because they feel this means “forgetting” their loved one. Moving on is much easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
Statements that begin with “You should” or “You will.” These statements are too directive. Instead you could begin your comments with: “Have you thought about…” or “You might try…”