No one likes talking about death. It’s uncomfortable and incredibly awkward.
However, as difficult as it may be to handle the topic of grief, it’s still important to hold room for these types of conversations.
With the two year mark of my mother’s passing coming up in a few days, this has been on the forefront of my mind. And, sadly, with all of the COVID-related deaths, horrific mass shootings, and police brutality plaguing the country, the topic of grief and loss is extremely relevant.
Though, despite this relevance, it can still be exceptionally hard to figure out what exactly you should say to those who are grieving.
“I’m sorry for your loss” is the typical phrase used when offering condolences.
Everyone (including myself) has said this before. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an “I’m sorry” statement, there are just plenty of other, more meaningful things you can say in place of it.
When my mother passed, most everyone told me they were sorry for my loss. Again, not a problem, but I had no idea how I was supposed to reply to that. I usually ended up saying “thank you,” but what was I thanking them for? And, what were they sorry for? Did they pity me? It was never a big deal, but nonetheless, it always struck me as strange.
These may just be my own personal preferences, but here’s a list of simple phrases to say to those that are grieving, so you can hold room for their emotions and show them that you care.
“What do you need right now?”
Offer them something specific, such as making them dinner or watching their children for the night.
People tend to refuse help in their times of need. Sometimes, even if you ask what you can do for someone, they will be persistent in saying they don’t need anything at all.
Rephrasing your questions from “What can I do for you?” to “I’m making you lasagna, what night is best for me to bring it over?” can be extremely effective in getting the griever to accept your help.
I remember when my mother passed, our neighbors did exactly that. They would tell my dad and I that they were bringing over bagels or pasta dishes, and did not take “no” for an answer. Rather, they’d merely ask when they could drop it off.
“When can I stop by/see you?”
Offering a visit or phone call for those grieving truly helps them to feel less alone. Sometimes those in grief need to be alone, but giving them the chance to have company allows for a great sense of comfort.
Acknowledge the name of those who have passed.
By speaking of fond memories, asking questions about their loved one, or even just using their loved one’s name in a sentence, you are validating the feelings of those in grief. Doing so also helps to show them that you are willing to talk about their loss if they want to.
“You don’t have to talk.”
Although leaving room for conversation is vital in the healing process, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person wants to talk about it/is ready to talk about it.
Let them know that you’re there for them, but that they don’t have to say anything. This can sometimes provide the griever with an even greater sense of ease and prevents them from being forced into doing something that may make them feel worse.
“I’m proud of you.”
Trust me, this isn’t as awkward of a phrase as it may seem. This could be the reassurance someone needs to hear in order to remember just how strong they are.
“You are so loved.”
This should need no explanation. No matter who or what a person is grieving, it can be comforting to be reminded that they do have a support system and that they are loved.
The most important thing to keep in mind when speaking on death and dying is to be considerate of others’ feelings, and to not say anything you don’t truly mean. Don’t tell a griever that you’re only a call away if you’re not willing to answer the phone.
Overall, there is no one “correct” thing to say to those in grief, but instead, any small act of care and kindness goes a very, very long way.