What To Say When You Have To Say Something

(and what phrases to avoid at all cost)

When your friend or family member is grieving the loss of someone close to them, it’s time to show up. You know in your gut that you have to say something, but no matter how you craft your words, you stress that they’ll be misinterpreted or come off generic and overplayed. While this feels completely paralyzing, it doesn’t have to be. It is easier than it seems to show up with empathy and active support for your loved one when they need you the most.

First, to avoid any major flubs, let’s tackle what not to say.

What to avoid

“I know how you feel.”
Even if you have been in a similar situation, this phrase can be grating right after a loss. Grief tends to be isolating, as you may know and remember, so try to meet them where they are instead of where you were.

“They’re in a better place.” / “It’s God’s plan.” / “Everything happens for a reason.”
If you’re not 100% sure of their spirituality or religion, it’s important to remember that many people have different beliefs when it comes to why things happen the way they do and what happens after death. Saying anything that could be imposing your own beliefs on them could cause discomfort in this already stressful time.

“At least…”
There is no bright side. Do not try to find one.

“You’ve got this. Be strong!”
Chances are, they’re doing the best they can. The last thing they need in this moment is a motivational TED Talk.

“This happens eventually. It’s a fact of life.”
Despite the inevitability of death, it still causes extreme sadness. Put aside rationale for this moment. The pain comes anyway.

To pretend something major hasn’t happened causes more harm than good, but now that we’ve gone over what sayings to skip, here are some tips on what to prepare yourself to say so that your loved one feels supported.

What to say

Acknowledge the moment and keep it simple
It is enough to just acknowledge their pain. No matter where we are in life, humans want to feel seen. Saying “I’m so sorry,” or “You’re on my mind,” communicates that you are aware of their loss and you’re not avoiding them, like some people are bound to do.

You do not have to reinvent the wheel. “I love you,” and “I’m here for you,” never get old. These phrases remain timeless and, when you’re the one hurting, mean a lot. Even “I wish I had the right words,” lets them know that you are trying your best to be there.

Lead with listening and empathy
You don’t have to say a lot. After you acknowledge what they’re going through, present your listening ear. With everyone messaging or calling them to offer condolences, they might be sick of doing all the listening and just saying “Thank you.” Let them know that if they want to talk, you’re here.

They may not take you up on it right away, but they will appreciate your active and empathetic support. If they’d rather not talk, you can offer to sit with them in silence. Try to get comfortable simply being in the presence of those big feelings. Sometimes, it’s just nice to have company.

How to say “I’ve been there,” if you have
While in most cases, there’s nothing worse than “I know how you feel,” if you’ve been on a similar grief journey, just saying “I’ve been there,” can help them to know they’re not alone. Tread lightly by stating your loss without imposing your experience (for example, “I lost my dad a couple of years ago,”) and leave it out there for them to ask about in the future, if they want to.

Share a favorite story or photo or video clip, if you have one
If you knew the person they lost, share a memory that meant something to you. (“Remember that time your brother attacked us with silly string!? My stomach hurt from laughing!”) or a quality you see passed down to your loved one (“You’ve always had your mom’s crazy sense of humor. You make everyone laugh.) As someone going through loss, one of the most healing feelings is knowing the impact and joy your someone brought to the people in your life and how they live on in you.

Help them with the normal things
In times of difficult loss, the most routine tasks can feel extremely heavy or even impossible. If you’re feeling like your words aren’t enough, step up and ask if you can walk their dog, cook a meal, or do a grocery run for them — anything that gives them one less thing to do.

If you’re fighting that instinctual urge to try and “fix it,” you can make a date to do something that helps your loved one feel like themselves again. Go browse your favorite shops or hit up the local mini-golf course. Fill their day with familiar good stuff. Those seemingly small gestures are always remembered and appreciated.

Make a specific plan to follow up
This is probably the most important part! In the initial days and weeks after the loss and leading up to the services, your loved one will likely hear from a billion different people with fleeting condolences. Then, a couple of weeks or months go by and the outpouring of support fades away. Suddenly, they’re alone to deal with this new version of life.

Tell them that you’ll be there when things slow down. Put a reminder to call or text them in your calendar and make sure you follow through. Make a plan to do something fun together. Plan a movie night or bring dinner over. That kind of long-game support is rare and invaluable.

Published on November 9, 2020

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