Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What to Say (and not to say) to a Bereaved Person

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members, a heart of grace and a soul generated by love.
Corretta Scott King

This is a post I've thought of writing many times since the inception of Grief & Gratitude. Over and over people have told me that they didn't know what to say to us after Matthew died. They told us how they felt their words were awkward or just plain wrong. I know that before Matthew died, I too, struggled with knowing how to approach a bereaved person. I think this is in part because death is something we don't really deal with well in our society and that we prefer to pretend that it doesn't  happen. Seventy-five years ago people were more surrounded by death because generations lived together and people experienced the death of relatives (old and young) in the home. Now death is very removed from people's day-to-day experience and we are less exposed to it and thus less comfortable with the reality that everyone dies.  This distance makes us feel awkward and unsure of what to say to a newly bereaved person. So this is my attempt to share my own personal experience with what I found to be helpful (and not so helpful) following Matthew's death.

I also want to recognize that just as people grieve differently, people also react differently to what folks say to them following a death. So my list may in fact be very different from another bereaved person's list. Things that I found very helpful, others may find not helpful. I also want to recognize that people (for those most part) mean well, even if their words can fall clunkily over the recipient.So I hope that this doesn't come across as ungrateful or judgmental. That is not my intent.  But these are my observations from where I stand almost four years down this road and I hope that they are helpful.

Some Not So Helpful Things to Say

I know how you feel, my _____________died. First of all, don't presume to know how I feel and please don't compare your loss (especially in the early days). And a special plea to not bring up a grandparent or a pet if you are talking to a bereaved parent.

I could never go through what you are going through. For whatever reason, this one in particular really bothered me and I always wanted to say something like: Well as a matter of fact, yes you could go through this if you had to. I certainly didn't choose to go through this, but here I am.

I can't imagine what you are going through. Actually you can imagine it which is why you are saying that, and it is as bad as you imagine. It's much better to say something like: I know I can't begin to know how you are feeling. I realize it's just a bit nuanced, but somehow it works better. 

Please don't bring up heaven/angels and it being God's will. I actually never had anyone say any of these things to me, but I know that it happens a lot with the death of children and from my friends who have had it said to them, it is not appreciated. 

Avoid cliches like "Time Heals all Wounds" or "God never gives us more than we can handle." These are not very helpful, and sound trite.

There is a reason for everything.
Ugh. Not what any bereaved person needs to hear. 

You are so strong. While on the one hand, this appears tp be a compliment, it just doesn't feel right (especially in the beginning). Often times all you are doing is getting through the day as best as you can and you don't feel strong.  

Call me and we can____go on a walk, go have coffee etc. If you really want to do this, you are going to have to make the initiative and call them. Grief is hard work, and scheduling things is not a priority. So check in at a later date and see if they want to go for that walk. Don't expect them to check in with you; and also don't be surprised if they don't want to go. Keep checking.

Avoiding the bereaved person entirely. Yes, it happens (luckily not too often), and it's hurtful and does not go unnoticed. Remember it's about them, not you. Your momentary feeling of discomfort is nothing compared to what they are going through.

Okay, so now that I've probably made it so that you are never going to say anything to a bereaved person for fear of saying the wrong thing, here are some things that I found to be helpful.

Helpful Things to Say and Do

I'm so sorry for your loss. I know it's not the most original thing to say, but honestly there's so much that can be conveyed in those words when said sincerely.

I know I can't begin to know how you are feeling, but I am here to help in any way I can. If you have that kind of relationship with the bereaved then follow up in a couple of weeks with tangible offers of help ie. offer to do some errands, brings over some soup, walk the dog.

Write a sympathy card. I've written about this before. It's always welcomed.

Do you want to talk about ...? Or better yet, relay a favorite memory of the loved one. People love to hear stories of their loved ones. It's a way of keeping their memories alive and especially important as the months and years go by.

I'm holding you in my thoughts/prayers/in the light. All of these convey that you are being held and for me at least, that was comforting. 

Dropping notes/e-mails/texts as the months go by telling them that you are thinking about them. Remember, the bereaved person's life has irrevocably changed. Nothing is the same and yet life returns to normal for everyone else. This is such a simple, yet incredibly meaningful thing for friends to do. I loved it when people would do this and the notes can be short and sweet.

Just being there. Your presence can be everything to a newly bereaved person. Sometimes this means going over to their house and sitting for an hour and not saying anything. Sometimes it means showing up with a plate of homemade cookies and not staying. So much depends on your relationship with the bereaved. Follow your instincts.

Listening. Take time to really listen to them and remember it's about them, not you. Sometimes they just need to talk/cry and let their grief out. Remember, you are not there to fix anything.

Talking about a similar loss. While I said above that you shouldn't tell someone you know how they feel because you too lost a _______, there are times when sharing a loss can be helpful (especially in a sympathy card). It can be helpful to hear about unusual losses ie. the loss of a child or a sibling. We had many people write us about losses we had no idea about, and found them to be comforting.

Part of being human is being there for others. It means celebrating the good times and being there during the difficult ones. It's what community is all about. Being a companion to someone as they grieve (especially in that first year) can be an incredibly powerful experience. For the newly bereaved, a heart has been broken open and life will never be the same. I know that I am grateful to so many people for just being there as we made our way through that foggy first year. The people that did this the best were those that knew they couldn't fix our grief, but instead supported us along our journey.  My hope is that we all become better companions to those in need of support during the difficult days of grief. 


  1. Robin, thank you for your clear insights and these cogent observations. After nearly 10 months so many of them still hold true. I have shared this post on my blog, I hope you don't mind. I wish you peace.

    1. Ed,
      I wish you peace also as you inch your way toward the one-year anniversary. And thank you for sharing on your blog.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. It is right on target; I agree with your feelings about all of the things you mentioned, positive and negative. Thank you for being one of the lights on my path of life after Katie's passing (and thanks to Reba for introducing us)! I am holding you and your family close to my heart in these days. XO

    1. Karen,
      Thank YOU for your presence in my life now and four years ago. You have helped me more than you can ever know. x,o

  3. Thank you for your blog. These insights are so very true, and looking at them from a perspective of losing our own son Matthew, 30, and our church Pastoral minister in a terrible accident 8 years ago in September, they still are relevant and helpful.
    Especially " I know how you feel, our _ died."
    Everyone's grief is their own.
    There are parallels, but it is a journey we are suddenly forced to make like no other.
    I write my own blog about Matthew, which I began almost a few weeks after he died. It was therapeutic and kept me connected to him.
    I have been reading your words for awhile, and they are eloquent and beautifully expressed.
    Here is the link to my blog, which you can choose to read or ignore.
    I am absolutely certain that your words find and help others a\round the world.

    1. Viv,
      I am so sorry about the loss of your Matthew and appreciate your words of wisdom. Thank you for sharing your blog with me. We travel this road in parallel...

  4. This is spot on. I especially identify with the idea that the bereaved person is nowhere near being able to organize/schedule a visit or a coffe. Most days it is enough to get up in the morning and get through the day. I had so many people offering support in that manner and most of them I haven't heard of sine those first couple of weeks. My biggest supports have been those who just check in on me with a quick text or email, along the lines of "I'm here if you need me. Do you fancy a coffee? No pressure if you don't."
    Another one I feel uncomfortable with, although I know it would be said with good intentions is "You seem almost back to your old self." If only they knew how much effort has to go into getting through a day, having conversations with people, making decisions, and appearing "normal"! I will never be my old self!

  5. Thank you for your note, Pam. And yes, you are absolutely right about the comment "you seem almost back to your old self." That "old self" is gone and nothing is the same again. I know they mean it as a compliment, but it always feels superficial. Hugs to you.