When someone close to you dies, you initially receive a good deal of advice and support. Some of it is helpful. Some, not so much. I recently posted an article titled “The 8 Worst Things You Can Say to Someone Who is Grieving.” This is the companion piece that offers suggestions for helpful things you can say to someone who is newly grieving.
1. “I feel your pain.”
This is not the same thing as, “I know how you feel,” which is a statement I would avoid uttering because even if you’ve shared a similar circumstance, everyone’s journey is uniquely their own. The words, “I feel your pain,” however, is an expression of empathy.
In the book Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love: Daily Meditations to Help You Through the Grieving Process, authors Raymond R. Mitsch and Lynn Brookside maintain that the words “I feel your pain” are the four most helpful words that can be uttered to a grieving person.
“No other single sentence does more to break down walls of isolation formed by deep sorrow and regret,” write Mitsch and Brookside. “When those words are merged with a touch or an embrace, they mend the heart and lift up downcast eyes. They tell [the griever] that [he is] not alone in [his] grief.”
2. “How about a hug?“
I get that not everyone is touchy-feeling, but for me, at least, when I was newly grieving, I felt starved for hugs. I wanted to hug the UPS man who came to my door. I wanted to hug my spin instructor after class. I wanted to hug my neighbor and her little dog, too. It was almost as if I was a china doll that had been broken into pieces, and every hug offered a smidge of glue to help piece me back together.
Two weeks after my mom died, my son had an overnight field trip to the zoo. My husband was one of the chaperones. I packed them up and waved goodbye. As they pulled out of the driveway, an intense sense of loneliness settled into my soul. I remember going through my phone contacts and calling neighbors until one of them answered.
“Can you come over and give me a hug?” I asked.
I probably sounded pitiful, but that’s what I needed right then and there. A hug wasn’t going to take away all my pain, but it helped get me through that difficult moment.
3. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
It’s direct. It’s honest. It gets to the point. It shows you care. And as Patti Fitzpatrick, a grief support facilitator and bereavement minister, notes, “Two simple but extremely helpful and healing solutions that anyone can do is to 1) show up, and 2) say, “I’m sorry for your loss. Period.”
4. “I’m here for you.”
Truth be told, grief makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s hard to see someone you care about torn up emotionally. It’s natural to want to fix them, but that’s just not possible. Therefore, the most helpful thing you can do for someone who is hurting is to offer to just be there for them in whatever capacity they need.
Ben Keckler, the minister who runs my grief support group explained this notion beautifully when he said, “When you’re grieving, you don’t want to be around people who will see through you. You want to be around people who will see you through.”
5. “I’ll bring you some lasagna next Tuesday.”
This is just an example. Offering to do something specific is an alternative to the usual phrase that folks utter: “Let me know if you need anything.” People make this kind of open-ended gesture because they want to help and are not sure what the griever may need. But for those who are newly grieving, the truth is that they often don’t know what they need, either — and/or they don’t have the energy to figure it out and then call you to request it.
That’s why it’s better to just make a specific offer like, “I’m headed to the grocery. I can bring you some milk and bread if you’d like.”
6. “Would you like to talk about your loved one?”
It’s natural to worry that if you bring up the subject of the person who died, you’ll make the griever sad. Actually, the opposite is true. When a person loses someone super close to them, after the death they will continue to think about their loved one constantly. After several months have passed, the griever is astounded by how rarely people mention the person who died. It’s heartbreaking, really. So when you bring up a memory or share a story about the person who passed away, it lets the griever know that others remember their loved one, too, and that’s really comforting news.
7. Ask, “How are you doing?” Then listen — really listen — for the true answer.
When you make it clear that you’re asking for a real and honest answer and not just expecting the trite response of, “Oh, I’m fine,” that promotes healing.
Keckler says that “fine” can be an acronym for “Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional.” That’s certainly an apt description for those who are newly grieving because their feelings truly are all over the map. Sorting through them can be difficult, which is why it’s nice to have people in their life with whom they can share their genuine feelings.
A few months into my grief, I remember telling my husband that I had figured out who my “safe” people were. Through conversations and interactions, I could tell which of my friends were okay with my being my authentic self and which were not. The “safe” ones checked in with me regularly. They sat with me and let me cry. They didn’t mind when I called them sobbing so hard that they could barely discern a word I was saying. They let me share openly, and that’s what I needed.
8. Say nothing.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting that you avoid the grieving person or that when you talk to them you should pretend that you don’t know their loved one has died. That behavior would be hugely hurtful. I’m suggesting that you not be afraid to close your mouth and open your heart. Hold their hand. Offer them a tissue. Make a pot of coffee. Ask if they’d like to go for a walk. Whatever you do, let them lead the conversation. Often the biggest gift you can give a grieving person is permission to speak freely.
Mitsch and Brookside write, “So many of us are taught not to talk about our wounds. We absorb the message, spoken or tacit, that ‘talking doesn’t help,’ ‘weeping doesn’t change things,’ ‘talking about it will just make you sad.’ None of those statements is true. Talking about our sorrow does not increase our sorrow; it purges our sorrow.”
Read Christy Heitger-Ewing’s award-winning book Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat. Visit her author website.