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What to Say to the Bereaved, and What Not to Say

Category: Supporting The Bereaved

If a close friend or family member is engulfed in grief for the loss of a loved one, it is never easy to find the right words to say that can support them in their bereavement journey.

Understandably, you will be afraid of saying the wrong thing and making your friend or family member feel worse than they already did. That’s the last thing anyone wants to do. However, there are many conversations you can have with them to demonstrate how much you care and your willingness to help them through this difficult time.

You’re there for them to lean on and talk to

This is one of the most important things you can say to support a grieving loved one. Research suggests that social support can help people overcome a loss easier.

Comforting your friend or family member can simply mean letting them know that you are there for them whenever they need you.

It’s important not to minimise their thoughts and emotions. By letting them know you’re there for them to lean on and talk to, it gives them the freedom to express themselves at their own pace.

Tell them how you’re going to make their life easier in the short-term

It’s all too easy to say to a friend or family member “let me know if you need anything”. When you drill down to the reality of that phrase, it’s not a very helpful thing to say at all. It places unnecessary pressure on the bereaved to find something for you to help with.

Instead, it’s far better to grab the bull by the horns - pick a task and let them know that you’re going to do it to make their life easier. Whether it’s doing the food shop, the laundry or mowing the lawn, these little tasks might not seem a lot on the surface. Nevertheless, they give the bereaved time to focus on the reality of their grief rather than hide from it.

Let them know it’s okay not to be okay

Although it’s important to encourage your grieving friend or family member, it’s also important to acknowledge their grief and the situation. Let them know how difficult it must be to put on a brave face and reassure them that they don’t have to put on an act at this tough time. It removes the pressure from them to be someone they don’t feel like at this moment.

Never express false words of comfort

Although there is nothing anyone can do to overturn what has happened, try not to say meaningless platitudes such as “they’re in a better place now” or “it must’ve been their time to go”.

When a loved one is taken from us, there is never a good enough reason for them to pass away.

How we feel about a loved one passing is entirely unique to how someone else may feel about their own loved one passing. Do your best not to patronise and try your hardest to validate your friend or family member’s feelings.

Encourage them to talk about their loved one and their passing

Most people become anxious about knowing what to say to someone that is grieving. However, it’s more important to focus on giving your friend or family member a platform to express themselves about their loss. Knowing that you are there to listen to them can be a huge comfort to them.

Don’t be afraid to talk candidly and openly about the person that passed away, especially when your friend or family member mentions them. Ask questions about them that give your friend or family member an invitation to vocalise their thoughts.

It’s important for them to be able to discuss the way their loved one died. People that are grieving may feel the need to retell this story on several occasions. It doesn’t mean their memory is an issue, it’s simply their mind’s way of processing and coming to terms with their loved one’s death.

Each time they retell the story, the pain will slowly ease. So, by showing compassion and giving your friend or family member a platform to talk, you’re allowing them to heal in their own time.

Know when the time is right not to say anything

There will come a time when your friend or family member won’t feel like talking at all. Some days, they will simply get comfort from having you around. If they are having an afternoon of reflection and contemplation, let them.

By all means, offer a reassuring smile, hug or a squeeze of the hand, but give them the headspace to process what’s happened.

What you should avoid saying to someone who is grieving

Of course, when you witness a friend or family member grieving, your first instinct will be to try and fix the situation. In reality, those good intentions can exacerbate their grief. Knowing what you shouldn’t say is just as important as knowing what you should say.

Let’s consider some of the things people say to a grieving friend or family member that should be an absolute no-no:

  • “They wouldn’t want you to be sad” – while that may be the case, telling someone who is grieving that they can’t display their emotions will only harm their bereavement journey.

  • “It’s important to try and keep busy” – it’s vital to do the opposite. Encourage them to take some time out from work and focus on processing what’s happened.

  • “You have the rest of your life ahead of you” – although this may be true, it’s the last thing they’ll want to hear right now. It’s not the right time to think about the future. Allow them to live in the present.

  • “Grief happens in stages” – don’t tell your loved one how to grieve. Grieving is a very personal process, with no set timetable for how long it will last.

  • “Everything happens for a reason” – don’t attempt to normalise their loss.