Do you struggle with knowing what to say to someone who is grieving a loss? It’s completely normal to fear saying the wrong thing, but that same fear can cause us to pull away from someone who could really use our support.
The fact that you’re reading this shows that you care deeply and want to get it right. Knowing how to show up in grief, instead of running away, will go far in helping those around you feel seen and loved.
Plus, what a great life skill to grow because grief is all around us… it happens when we lose someone we love and it also shows up when we experience a loss of things like a job, a pet, a home, a romantic relationship, etc. Most of us felt a great deal of grief as COVID affected our everyday lives. So, since we’re surrounded by grief, it’s important to know how to talk about it and how to show up for those who may be struggling.
As a therapist, I’m often asked the same questions when it comes to grief. Let’s go through them to help you better understand how to communicate without fear.
Q. If I’m feeling awkward, is it best to just say nothing at all?
Ignoring someone’s loss will often lead you to feel like you’re dancing around the elephant in the room. Saying nothing at all can feel worse than saying the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and can suggest that you don’t care at all. So, that’s why I’m here to help you get comfortable with talking to someone who is struggling with loss.
Q. Ok, but what in the world should I say?
This is where you can keep it super simple. You can say something like, “I’m sorry to hear about your loss. How are you coping today?”
Those who are experiencing grief often go from wanting to talk about it to wanting to avoid the topic. Since grief is a messy process, on any given day they can go from one extreme to another and that’s okay and expected.
But, you don’t have to be a mind-reader to support someone who is struggling. Just leave yourself open to honoring where they are at the moment. Saying something like “I’m not sure if you want to talk about your loss today, but please know I am here and willing to listen if you do” allows them to make the choice that best meets them where they are currently at.
Sharing your personal memories of their loved one can also be helpful. Our loved ones are so much more than the last few days of their lives and it is nice to remember that they positively impacted someone else’s life.
Q. Are there things that I should avoid saying?
Sure. Saying things like “I know how you feel” can make it seem as though you are minimizing another person’s grief. For example, if you’ve lost a parent and are trying to comfort someone who has also lost a parent, it may seem natural to compare your experiences. But, the nuances of each relationship color the grieving process. If you were extremely close to a parent, your loss isn’t comparable to someone who had a distant relationship with their parent.
Grief is often complicated by things like physical or emotional distance or circumstance surrounding the death. With a similar loss, you can say something like, “I also lost a parent and know how complicated those feelings can be. Do you mind telling me how you’re processing your loss?” It’s best to never assume you know exactly how a grieving person feels.
Q. Are there any actions I can take to comfort someone who is hurting?
If you find yourself at a loss for words, know that your presence, even in silence, can be helpful. Just a hug can change someone’s day. It can be difficult for a grieving person to identify what would be helpful to them in the moment, so try offering to complete a task. When you make specific suggestions, you allow them the opportunity to think about what might be most helpful. An act of kindness, like cooking a meal, babysitting, or cleaning, can give someone much needed time and space to process a loss.
Q. My faith has helped me through loss. Should I share this with them?
In terms of spirituality, you may need to tread lightly. Although someone can be very spiritual or believe in God, after a loss they may be angry with God or their faith may be tested at that moment.
When you say something like “this was part of God’s plan” or even “they are in a better place” you may be further complicating their thought processes. Saying “I am praying for your peace” or “you are in my thoughts and prayers” will likely be more helpful.
Q. Should I try to cheer them up?
Attempting to find the “bright side” or push someone to move along from their grief can be minimizing and hurtful. There is no timeline for grief, so remaining available for as long as is needed is the best thing you can do.
If you feel someone is grieving for an extremely long time, it may be helpful to suggest they find professional support to help them. Our Sanvello therapists are highly trained in helping people move through the grief process. We also have a supportive Sanvello Community that they can turn to. Try to remember that you cannot force someone to be ready to move through grief. They will make that choice when they are ready.
Offering to take a walk or grab a cup of coffee are acceptable gestures as long as you’re not forcing them on someone. At a time when everything seems out of a grieving person’s control, their control is sometimes the one thing they will fight to maintain.
Comforting someone who is grieving can feel daunting, so try to remember that your presence and an open ear are the most thoughtful gifts you can give. You may not always say the exact right thing, but letting someone know that they are not alone in their grief is a wonderful start.
By Diann Binns, LCSW, Sanvello Therapist
Diann understands that everyone’s journey is unique to their life experiences. As a therapist, she believes her role is to journey alongside her clients to help them navigate their path and recognize their learning potential around every bend. In her 20+ year career, she has worked in many areas of mental health and social work. When she’s not seeing clients, Diann enjoys being in nature. She loves walking or hiking with family, friends, or even by herself.