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How Do I Comfort a Friend Who Lost a Loved One?

Some do's and don'ts for what to say and do.

Key points

  • It is difficult to talk about grief with someone who has just lost a loved one, but it can prove to be a most worthwhile and meaningful gesture.
  • It is better to say something rather than nothing and to express empathy instead of sympathy.
  • There are certain things that can be more or less comforting to say to someone who has lost a loved one.

It can be difficult and awkward to know what to say and do when someone you care about loses someone they care about. Most of us have been in this situation, on both sides, and are familiar with how hard it is. In a culture focused on youthfulness and all measures anti-aging, and simultaneously not well versed in talking honestly about death and grief, it is even harder.

Jametlene Reskp/ Unsplash
Source: Jametlene Reskp/ Unsplash

Some find it so awkward that they do not want to say anything and possibly even avoid the person, sidestepping the need to have that conversation. This is the worst thing one can do for someone enduring a loss. Ignoring the situation won't make it better, and it surely won't bring back a loved one.

Most people on the receiving end of remarks intended to convey care and concern recognize how anxiety-producing it is for people to know the "right" thing to say. Most will appreciate someone even admitting just that because it's human, honest, and real. Someone stumbling a little on what they are saying ultimately feels much more authentic than someone spewing platitudes or greeting card-like statements. Most people enduring the tiring and lonely experience of grief benefit from expressions that are more empathetic than sympathetic. This is because empathy is about really trying to understand the person in pain whereas sympathy is more about feeling sorry for the person in pain. Generally, people prefer to be understood than pitied.

Most often what is needed in these situations is less about what is said and more about being there to help hold space for the grief. As I discuss in my book, the experience of grief feels like being on a very broken, crooked path, one that momentarily reveals light amidst what feels like overwhelming, relentless darkness, and then immediately goes black again with no warning. A song, a letter, a type of food, or a photograph can catapult us back and refresh the grief at any moment.

Here are some things to avoid saying and doing:

  • "I totally know what you're going through. I went through this with______. " The reality is that we can never know exactly, and it shifts the attention from the person in pain to ourselves.
  • "Did the doctors and you try everything to save him/her?" We need to remember that some things in life cannot be saved and fixed, no matter how we try. Being asked this is frustrating because it implies one has not fought their battle well enough and that the caregiver has not already thought of trying to do everything.
  • Cliched/empty versions of the following (usually followed by the person saying, "don't you think?" which is often not agreed upon):

"Everything happens for a reason."

"God has a plan."

"This is for the best."

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

“At least they lived a good life."

"Time will heal."

"They’re in a much better place."

  • “Is there something I can do?" or "Let me know if you need anything." This puts the burden on the caregiver or the bereaved person when he or she already is preoccupied with too many things, both big and small. Try instead to offer something very concrete and very specific that you know you can do. For example, "I would like to bring your family dinner on Tuesday when I get off work at 6pm. Will that work for you? Does your family have any food allergies or cravings at all? I thought about making vegetable lasagna, but would that be something you might like?"

Some things that might be helpful to say and do:

  • Don't worry about bringing up this loss unless for some reason the person has already indicated they don't want to talk about it at all. While we may worry about reminding them of a most painful subject, they sit with the reality and they cannot really forget it.
  • People want to know that their loved one is remembered fondly. Don't be afraid to share a fun or funny memory you have. Humor helps, and people are comforted by the specificity of examples of the impact and imprint their loved one made.
  • It is best to let the person be the guide as to how much or how little they want to share, answer, vent, switch topics, etc.
  • Telling the person you care about that their loved one is never far can be helpful to remind people of the sense of our loved ones being close to us, a companion still on the journey with us.
  • Acknowledge that words seem to fail, that you are aware this really sucks and feels empty, sad, lonely, hard, stressful, etc.
  • Offer to simply sit with the person, even in stillness and silence, or to just be in the other room as a familiar presence. You might even explain that it's not necessary to talk or do anything.
  • Offer to visit with the person and to help make phone calls, sort through clothing and other belongings of the deceased person, run errands, provide rides, etc.

The way that we are present for someone in pain, someone who is steeped in grief and loss, can be one of the most important gifts we can offer in a friendship.

More from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
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More from Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
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