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What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving

Speaking with someone who just lost a loved one can be tricky, but it’s important to show your support.

Grieving is a process that is different for every individual. Whether it’s a close friend or new acquaintance who has experienced a loss, it’s important to express your condolences and support them during their time of grief—but it can be hard to know what to say.

To learn more about what to say (and not to say) to the bereaved, we spoke with Carmela McDowell, MSW, LSW a medical social worker and bereavement coordinator at Jefferson Health Home Care and Hospice.

1. Do: Approach with Honesty and Empathy

When speaking with someone whose loved one has died, it’s okay to address how awkward and uncomfortable conversations around death can be—for both the people supporting and being supported. “Don’t be afraid to directly speak to how uncomfortable the conversation is when talking to someone who has just experienced a loss,” says McDowell. “Sometimes the best thing to say is that you wish you could offer them comfort and then lend a listening ear so they know they’re being heard. Being present and open is often the best way to offer support.”

2. Don’t: Diminish Their Bereavement Experience

It may seem obvious, but you should never say anything to diminish or limit someone’s grieving experience. For instance, saying something like, “You’ll have another” when someone has lost a child implies their deceased child can be replaced. “Be sure not to judge where people are in the grieving process by sharing a message like, ‘You’re still sad?’ We have to accept where the bereaved are and meet them there,” says McDowell.

3. Do: Follow the Lead of the Bereaved

A great way to figure out how to speak with the bereaved about their loss is by listening to how they find comfort. “If someone says they anticipated their loved one’s death because they were in hospice, and now their suffering is over, I can then use that to inform the words I use to comfort them,” says McDowell. “Never assume the way someone feels without hearing it from them first.”

4. Don’t: Assume Their Belief Systems

Grief isn’t one-size-fits-all, so we need to check our own belief systems at the door. “You should never assume anything about the bereaved,” says McDowell. “Even if you’re the same religious denomination as someone, try to stay away from offering words of comfort wrapped up in your own beliefs—phrases like, ‘They’re in God’s hands’ or ‘They’re in a better place’ can be extremely limiting.”

5. Do: Think Before You Speak

Many times, we say things we believe to be comforting because that’s what we learned when we were young. Phrases like, “Only the good die young” or “I’m sorry for your loss” may be top of mind when thinking about what to say to the bereaved. But before you speak, take a moment to think about if what you’re saying is actually helpful, comforting and genuine. “When we say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ what we really mean is, ‘I’m sorry for your pain’ or ‘I’m sorry you have to experience this.’ So it may be better to say those things instead of leaning on a cliche that the bereaved hears over and over,” says McDowell.

6. Don’t: Be Afraid to Apologize

Everyone says things they don’t mean, especially in awkward situations. But that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to apologize to the bereaved—especially when you think you said something insensitive or hurtful. “Be honest with those who are grieving when you realize you may have hurt them,” says McDowell. “Even if it takes years for you to realize, it’s important to share those feelings with the people we care about."

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