- When someone has lost a loved one, don’t avoid the subject and let them know you’re here to listen.
- Share your memories of the late person and acknowledge that it takes a long time to heal.
- Avoid saying things like “you need to move on,” and “everything happens for a reason.”
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Knowing what to say to someone who is grieving can be incredibly difficult. It’s normal to feel afraid of saying the wrong thing and accidentally making them feel misunderstood or alienated, but you can show your support by simply being there for them.
“Listen to them with empathy, and avoid judgment. There is no timeline for grief, and it is helpful to avoid expectations that someone will feel better or stop talking about their loss after an arbitrary amount of time has passed,” says Sarah Vollmann, MPS, a board-certified art therapist and faculty member of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition.
Here’s what you should and shouldn’t say to someone who is grieving and what you can do to support them.
What to say to someone who’s grieving the loss of a loved one
When talking to someone who is grieving, don’t try to avoid the topic of their loss or brush it under the rug. “Whatever you do, don’t make the loss something taboo,” says Celia Bradshaw, PhD, a clinical psychologist with a private practice.
There are times when a grieving person wants to talk about their loss and times that they don’t, so let them know that you’re open to talking about their loss while also letting them decide if and when they want to open up. According to Vollmann, you can say something along the lines of, “I don’t know if you feel like talking about your dad right now. If you want to talk about him we can, or we can totally talk about something else.” It’s best to let them take the lead.
You can acknowledge the situation and express your concern by saying the following:
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
This simple and straightforward sentence is often the best because you’re not trying to give solutions or offer unsolicited advice, you’re just addressing the fact. It may be too formal for a friend or a relative, so just speak genuinely, like “I’m so sorry that this happened” or “It’s so sad to hear that your parent/sibling/friend died.”
“A sincere and heartfelt expression of empathy is always appreciated and important,” says Vollmann. “The most important thing is to show empathy and to acknowledge the significance of the loss without minimizing it in any way.”
“I’m here for you.”
Be willing to listen or simply keep them company. “One of the most powerful things that we can offer to a bereaved friend or family member is to just be with them, while accepting their feelings and remaining present and empathic,” says Vollmann. Let them know that they can be vulnerable with you and your door is always open.
“My favorite memory of your loved one is…”
According to Vollmann, those who are grieving can often feel that people are hesitant to talk about the deceased, but it can be comforting to have space where their loved one is remembered.
“Knowing that other people are still thinking of their departed loved one too is a great joy and comfort,” says Bradshaw.
“I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.”
It’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t know exactly how it is to be in their shoes, but you’re still there for them for anything they might need. Even if you’ve experienced grief before in your life, everyone grieves differently and every relationship is unique, so you never actually know how someone else feels.
“Grief is awkward for everyone, including the person experiencing it. So the best thing to do is just to be there for your grieving loved one” says Bradshaw.
Let the grieving person express their emotions without judgment or criticism. If they don’t feel like talking, you can squeeze their hand or offer a hug. If the tears come, remember that you didn’t make them sad — you simply gave them a safe space to express it, says Vollmann.
What not to say to someone who lost someone
Knowing the right thing to say doesn’t come naturally, especially when the topics of death and grief are always avoided, so it’s important to know which empty remarks are generally unhelpful.
Here’s what you should avoid saying to a grieving person:
“God has a plan.” or “They’re in a better place now.”
There are varying meanings of death among different belief systems. Unless you’re certain that they share your faith in what happens after death, don’t force it on them as it will not be comforting.
“They are longing to have their loved one here, and with them. Telling them that their loved one is in a better place suggests that they should be happy for the deceased and accept the loss,” says Vollmann.
“Everything happens for a reason.” or “It was meant to be.”
“Anything that ‘explains’ the death is unwelcome,” says Bradshaw, so avoid saying statements that try to justify the loss. Don’t suggest that a terrible and painful tragedy deserved to happen to them.
Saying anything along the lines of “at least they were old” or “at least you still have another child/sibling/parent” minimizes the gravity of their loss.
“It sounds as if you are telling them to be grateful, in the midst of their grief, for any positives that you can come up with. They are probably coping with many agonizing feelings and it is doubtful that they want to feel grateful,” says Vollmann.
“You need to move on.”
Grieving lasts a long, long time and there’s no getting over it, says Bradshaw. Their loss will continue to be meaningful to them over time, and telling them to move on or cheer up will only invalidate their grief.
“It can sound like a judgement, as if they are mourning too much or too long, and make people feel unable to share about their grief,” says Vollmann.
“You don’t look like you’re grieving.”
Just because grieving people can find solace in the structure of a “normal” day doesn’t mean that the pain of the loss isn’t there.
“Grieving people have different needs at different times. They might unload a lot of feelings one day but want to talk about other things the next,” says Vollmann. “If they are in the mood to be silly or sad, whatever it may be, go with it. Let them set the tone, and take their lead.”
Avoid making comments on their physical appearance as well. Even a well-intentioned remark can come off differently. Whether you have a positive or negative comment, it’s best to keep it to yourself.
What else can you do for someone who lost a loved one?
Telling a grieving person to contact you if they ever need anything is too open-ended and often puts the burden on them to reach out, so it’s better to take action by offering help directly.
“Little acts of kindness are often needed and much appreciated long after the funeral is over. Life does not suddenly go back to normal in a week or a month after we have lost a loved one,” says Vollmann.
Holidays can be a tough time, so reach out and continue to keep them in your thoughts.
“If you are able to remember the birthday of the deceased or the anniversary of the death, reach out at those times to check in. A lot of feelings often come up on those anniversaries, and it will mean a lot to them that you have remembered,” says Vollmann.
When reaching out to someone who is grieving, it’s important to say statements that acknowledge their loss and the grief that they feel, such as “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “I’m here for you.” Avoid pushing them to grieve more quickly or offering statements that make them feel the death of their loved one was “supposed to happen.”
Aside from reaching out, you can also support them by sending food and care packages or offering to run errands for them. Keep in mind that life doesn’t go back to normal after an arbitrary amount of time, so your support should be continuous.
Everyone handles grief differently and you may find them refusing help despite the difficult time they’re going through. Vollmann advises following their lead and not pushing help upon them, unless you are worried about their health and safety.
“If they seem to be spiraling over time and in need of professional help, it might be helpful to research and discuss possible resources and to gently encourage them to get some assistance,” says Vollmann. Grief counselors, bereavement support groups, or their primary care provider may provide them immediate help.