This morning I find my heart very heavy for dear friends who lost a beloved niece and nephew Thursday in a tragic car accident. Just 12 and 16 years old. Their only children. What to say to them?
And we’ve had another Ft. Hood shooting this week. Tragic and heartbreaking.
And many other losses continue; military, gangs, illness, etc. So much grief in our lives today. And reality is that each of us will, at some point in our lives, either experience the loss of a dear loved one, or find ourselves trying to comfort someone else who has. What in the world do we say, or what do we do in trying to help or comfort someone who is grieving?
With these emotions heavy on my mind this morning, I am reminded of when my own son died in a tragic school bus accident; the terrible, desperate need for comfort, and the loving but uncomfortable hesitance of those around who longed to provide comfort to me and my family.
It is never easy to see the pain and anguish of a heart deep in grief. And for most, it is not easy to attempt comforting those wandering through this engulfing pain. But having wandered through that darkness myself, and finally emerging on the side of daylight once again, be it a little dimmer, I put down words of helpful suggestion for talking to and helping those experiencing grief. I have inserted this article below. I pray you never have to wander this path of pain yourself, but hope these suggestions will help you feel more comfortable when helping someone who is.
With a full heart,
GOOD GRIEF: WHAT TO SAY AND WHAT NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO IS GRIEVING
Have you ever found yourself struggling to say the right thing to someone who has lost a loved one? Maybe you were afraid your words might make them feel worse or make them cry? Rest assured, you are not alone. Expressing your sympathy to someone who is grieving can be awkward and uncomfortable. With a few simple guidelines, however, thoughtful words of sympathy can be sincerely expressed.
To begin, we must first realize that there is nothing we can say or do that will make a bereaved person feel better or hurt less. Grief is not merely an emotion we feel, nor is it something we simply get over. Rather, the loss of a loved one is an ever present emptiness we somehow learn to live with. Consider Sigmund Freud’s insightful words:
“We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else.”
In my experience, Freud’s words proved true indeed. In grieving the loss of my little boy to a tragic school bus accident when he was only nine, there were no words or actions which could ease the gaping wound in my heart. However, in the midst of my deepest mourning, a sincere hug and “I am so sorry for your loss”, or “I am praying for you” were very comforting.
Listed below is a helpful guideline focused on words frequently said to the bereaved which I found to be either comforting and helpful, or confusing and hurtful.
Things You Might Say to Someone Who is Grieving
If you are comfortable with the grieving person, then make eye contact, touch them, take his or her hand or give a sincere hug as you say:
- “My condolences to you”, “I am so sorry for your loss”, “I am so sorry your son died.”
If you don’t know the person well, or are afraid you might break down and make their pain worse, try to be simple, open and sincere when you say,
- “I don’t know what to say, but please know how sorry I am that your _______ died.” “Please know I care.”
- “I can’t imagine what you are feeling.” “(Name of deceased) was a wonderful person. He/She will be deeply missed.” It is important to validate the loved one’s life, as well as the grief felt in the loss of that loved one’s life.
- If you are a close family member, you might wrap the grieving person in your arms and hold them as they cry. Share their grief. Affirm their grief. I remember lying on the couch with my head in my mother’s lap, as she stroked my hair, softly encouraging me as I cried. This had a great calming and soothing affect on my utter desperation and anxiety and feeling of drowning in a sea of pain.
Beyond What To Say: What to Do
- Time permitting; relate a fond memory of the loved one, using the loved one’s name.
- If you visit the grieving person in their home, and have pictures of their loved one, take an envelope of the picture(s) and leave it on the table for the guests to linger over, or the grieving one to look at and hold onto when they are ready.
- Listen intently as the grieving person talks. The grieving heart often hungers for words of the loved one and rejoices in telling personal memories.
- Be sensitive to his or her faith. This is not the time for theological arguments. Do tell them you will be praying for them if you genuinely intend to. Knowing that others were praying for me and my family was great comfort to us.
- Offer to perform specific tasks for them such as providing groceries or meals, feeding pets, running errands, doing household chores, returning messages, helping make arrangements, etc. Especially during the first few weeks, simple tasks can be overwhelming to the bereaved.
Things NOT to Say to Someone Who is Grieving
- “Shhhh, don’t cry, everything is going to be ok” while patting them on the back. Please don’t do this. Everything is not going to be ok for them, not for a long time. Try to understand this and let them grieve.
- “Don’t cry.” No matter how uncomfortable or sad their crying makes you feel, it is only through their thousands of tears that healing begins. It is okay to gently cry along with them.
- “I know how you feel.” Even if you have suffered a similar loss, it is better simply to say, “I know the pain of losing a child, husband, wife, etc.” If asked, then briefly relate your story. Hearing someone else’s story of loss helped me to not feel so alone in my suffering; but only when I was ready to hear it.
- “He’s in a better place now.” or “It was God’s will.” or “She’s better off now.” or “God must have needed another angel.” These words make the bereaved feel as if there should be no reason to grieve. I needed my grief – to me, it was all I had left of my son, and I needed to envelope myself in it until I was emotionally able to say goodbye to him.
- Again, be sensitive to their faith; saying that their loved one “is a beautiful angel in heaven now” will offend and anger those who don’t believe that, and make their grief worse.
- “It’s ok, you can have more children.” or “You’re young, you can learn to love again,” or “It’s good that you were too young to understand.” These are cruel words that can strip away the importance that the loved one held. Having another child can never replace the one lost. And no matter your age, a loss remains a loss, for the rest of your life.
- “Get over it.” or “Get a grip.” or “It’s time to get on with your life.” For the bereaved, life has stopped. Those words will only make them feel guilty, fearful, and angry.
When contemplating words of sympathy to the bereaved, please understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no set timetable or pattern within the stages of grief, which are: shock and numbness, denial, guilt, pain and deep sorrow, anger, depression, and acceptance. Each of these stages is normal and essential to healing, and the order and duration of each stage will vary. Any stage may be visited many times during the grieving process. Some may need professional counselling to help them cope. This is normal and acceptable.
In reflection of losing her brother and later her father, my daughter Tiffany stated, “Sometimes it wasn’t so much about what they said, it was about them being there, supporting me, letting me talk. Sometimes I just wanted someone to sit with me.” Her words sum it up perfectly. If you find yourself at a loss for words, remember – a human touch, soft eye contact, and just being there to listen will always be the right comfort.