I’ll probably undermine your confidence in this article when I tell you; I’m not sure how to write about this topic. Though I have plenty to say in response to the question of what to say to someone who is grieving, I’m conflicted about the best guidance.
On the one hand, I know there are no “right” or “perfect” words to say to someone who’s grieving. Many who’ve been through grief will tell you; it’s often not about what you say but what you do. And many times, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen. Knowing this, I’m wary of getting caught up in a discussion about finding the right words when I know the “right words” don’t exist.
On the other hand – words matter. You know how the old saying goes – Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will cut me to my core and live rent-free inside my head for years to come. Maybe I have that wrong; I’ll Google it later.
Anyway – when it comes to grief support, words can heal and connect, but they can also create barriers and hurt. This is true because anxieties about not having the right words sometimes prevent people from offering their support at all. And because, like it or not, offputting, inappropriate, or offensive comments can occasionally create conflict and separation.
So, I don’t think we can ignore the question of what to say to someone who’s grieving. To the extent that we can help people feel more confident in their ability to support their friends and family, and potentially not say something hurtful or minimizing, we should.
What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving:
We’ve written quite a bit on this topic already. A long, long time ago, we even wrote an eBook. So, let me start by sharing some of the guidance we’ve laid out in the past.
- What’s Your Grief’s eGuide to Supporting a Griever
- Grief Support vs. Comfort
- What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving
- 64 of the Best Things Ever Said to a Griever
- 64 of the Worst Things Ever Said to a Griever
- How to Support a Grieving Family Member or Friend: 6 Principles
Before offering support, you should be aware of a few general pieces of guidance:
Do not offer a silver lining and never say anything that starts with “At least…”:
Though people differ on what they find helpful vs. hurtful, this is pretty widely accepted guidance. Whether intended or not, statements like these tend to minimize a person’s pain and sometimes their loved one. They sweep the person’s pain under the rug and ask them to focus on abstract positives that, in most cases, do not resonate with the griever.
Follow the grieving person’s lead:
Sometimes the grieving person will identify silver linings, positives, and meaning in their loss on their own. This is a normal and often constructive way to cope with grief. Why is it bad for you to try and do this but good when the griever does? Because they are the only person who can know what this loss means to them. They are the only ones who can make meaning of their experiences. Once they do so, it’s okay to agree and support them in their beliefs.
Always consider your audience – when in doubt, leave it out – and know that what’s comforting to one person may be offputting to another:
Some people find Bible verses comforting in their grief, while others think expletives are the only way to express the tragedy of their loss. I’m pretty sure there are quite a few people who might agree with both of these statements.
If you know the person you want to comfort well, you know how approaches involving religious statements, swear words, cracking jokes, etc. might land. However, if you don’t know the person well enough to know these things, then play it down the middle.
Also, know that there isn’t one perfect statement that everyone likes to hear. “I’m sorry for your loss” is probably the most standard approach, but even this rubs some people the wrong way. As I said, there’s no perfect answer. How could there be, really? We’re all very different individuals with different experiences and different needs.
Thanks, but I still don’t know what to say to someone who’s grieving:
We recently asked people in our social media communities the words that felt right to them at the time of their loss. We received a wide range of responses but noticed one trend. Above all else, people liked to hear that others are there for them.
This mirrors much of the advice in our article 64 of the Best Things Ever Said to a Griever, which is also a collection of advice from our reader. A large chunk of these submissions also indicated that the best thing someone can do is offer a supportive presence.
The number one suggestion for what to say to someone who is grieving is some variation of the statement “I’m here for you.” With this caveat – you have to actually be there for the person. Don’t say “I’m here for you” if you plan to exit stage right and forget to check-in for a year.
The following lists the “here for you” statements people shared with us.
Here are a few honorable mention suggestions:
“I’m sorry. I love you.”
“My heart is heavy for you.” or “My heart goes out to you.”
“No need to respond.”
“I’m sending a hot meal/coffee/groceries to your doorstep.”
“My favorite memory of ____ is…”
“I’d love for you to tell me more about ____ sometime.” or “Do you have a picture of _____?”
“I may not know what to say, but I can listen.”
“What you’re feeling makes total sense.”
“Don’t worry about doing X, I’ll take care of it for you if it’s okay with you.”
“Please accept my deepest condolences.”
“You remind me so much of ________.”
If you have a suggestion, please share it in the comments below.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.