- Showing up means more than knowing the exact right thing to do or say.
- You don't need to fix someone's grief; it isn't something that can be solved.
- Everyone grieves differently, so ask them about their experience and listen to their answers.
Often when someone we love is grieving, we do not know what to say. “I’m sorry” does not seem to be enough but there are also no words that can provide a fix to what our loved one is going through. This can make us feel stuck and unsure about what to do to be able to support the person.
I work with many clients who are experiencing grief and loss. Many have shared about how they know the people in their lives want to help but don’t know what to say.
Often this leads to people saying nothing out of fear of saying the wrong thing: ultimately leading to the person who is experiencing the loss feeling more alone in their experience. Here are three tips for what to say when you do not know what to say:
1. Provide empathy, not a solution. When we have experienced a loss—whether it was the death of someone dear to us, not getting the dream job that we worked so hard for, or going through a divorce or breakup—words are not able to fix the situation. But the pain of loss is uncomfortable, hard, and messy; our instincts are often to try to fix the situation.
Statements like, “Well, they are in a better place,” “You can apply for the next job,” or “There are other fish in the sea” are well-intentioned but ultimately jump over the pain the person is experiencing and can create disconnection when you intend to connect.
Instead of trying to find solutions to the uncomfortable, it is often most powerful and connecting to be able to sit in the pain with the person.
Statements like these help you to connect with the person and what they are going through:
- “I know how much you are missing them. Would you like to tell me a favorite memory you have?”
- “You worked so hard for that position. It is such a bummer that you didn’t get the offer.”
- “It is OK to miss your ex even though the breakup feels right.”
When you don’t know what to say, saying “I don’t know what to say but I want you to know that I care” is more powerful than staying quiet. Accepting the messiness of loss versus trying to fix it is healing.
2. Be specific, not general. One of the things that I hear people say most often when someone has experienced a loss is “Let me know what I can to do help.” This is one of the most well-intentioned statements that often does not have the desired impact.
Sometimes we don’t know the best way to help so we make a general offer. However, people who are experiencing a loss often don’t know what to ask for.
Or they do not want to be a burden on their loved ones, so they don’t reach out when they think of something. Instead of making a general offer, embrace the power of showing up.
It is less important what you do and more important that you do something. So, pick something that you would feel comfortable doing and offer that to the person (and be OK if they say no).
Examples could be:
- “I’m going to the grocery store today. Is there anything I could pick up and drop off for you?”
- “I know things have been overwhelming lately. Would it work for me to come over on Thursday? I am happy to just listen if you want to talk or you can put me to work for any chores that need to be done.”
- You could also make it a habit to send a card in the mail every few weeks to say you are thinking of them or send a gift card/care package with a note of love.
Again, it matters less about how you show up and more that you make the effort to be present.
3. Focus on their experience, not your own. We often can relate to what people are going through because we have had a similar experience. Maybe we have also lost a loved one or got rejected from a job or can remember the pain of a broken heart. We sometimes share our experiences because we want to help and show that things do get better. However, no matter how similar the events were, we can never know exactly how someone else feels.
Everyone experiences loss differently and that is OK — and completely normal. Instead of sharing about what you have gone through, ask questions about the experiences of your loved one:
- “How are you doing today”
- “Do you want to talk about it right now?”
This can help you to understand what the person you love needs, even if it is different from what you would need. If it feels like sharing about what you have been through might help to connect, you might say something like “I went through something similar a few years ago. Would you like to hear some things that helped me?” or “I know I can’t understand exactly what you are feeling right now but I remember how overwhelmed I felt when I was in a similar situation. Is that how you are feeling too?”
Use your experience to connect and help you understand what they are experiencing, instead of expecting that they will feel the same as you.
Being present with people, especially in times of loss and pain, is incredibly powerful and healing. When you don’t know what to say, remember that it is less about the words themselves and more about the fact that you care enough to take the time to connect; amid their pain, even when words are not able to fix the situation.