What To Say To Someone Who Is Grieving

Posted on April 9, 2020 by Henry Ford Health Staff

Grief is one of the most difficult emotions to navigate. The pain and heartache often come in waves and without warning. If you know someone who is grieving, whether because they've lost a loved one or their way of life (which nearly all of us are experiencing to some degree in this time of the coronavirus outbreak), it can be difficult to find the right words.

"Most people want to say something that is comforting and kind but without overstepping," says Peggy Nielsen, program manager of SandCastles Grief Support Program. "The problem arises when they're not sure what to say or do."

Supporting Someone Who Is Grieving

Our culture doesn't embrace loss or change. Instead, we focus on how to fix things and keep on going. Even in the case of a death, most people get three or four days of bereavement leave and then they're expected to get back to the routine.

Unfortunately, grief doesn't work that way. "It's a process that takes time," says Nielsen. "The only way to get to the other side is to experience it." What should you say, and not say, to support grieving loved ones in the interim?

What To Say:

  • Whatever the person said: Often, people who are grieving just want to be heard. They don't want you to fix their pain. "So instead of trying to offer some sort of platitude, reflect what they said back to them," suggests Nielsen.
  • I did X thing I thought you might need: Instead of saying, “Let me know how I can help,” which requires the person who is grieving to ask for something specific, just show up. Say something like "I'd like to bring you dinner one day. How about next Tuesday?" or "I hired someone to clean your house. Which day works best for her to come by?" The caveat: Don't push if the person declines the offer.
  • I don't know what to say and I'm here: It's important to show the person that you're there for them, even if you don't know what to say. Send a text, drop a card in the mail or invite them out for a coffee date (a virtual one in the age of COVID-19).
  • I love you: If you have a close relationship, reminding the person you love them can help bolster their psyche. These words can be especially powerful on important dates, such as death anniversaries, birthdays and holidays.

What Not To Say:

  • You're so strong: After loss, people often feel weak. If you say, "You're so strong," that may not ring true to the person who is grieving.
  • It's time to get over this: There's no timetable for grief. The loss of a loved one can be significant years after the person died.
  • You can get married again/buy a new dog/get a new job: Finding a replacement for the person's loss is not a solution. In most cases, it's not even possible.
  • Your loved one is in a better place: No matter what peoples' religious beliefs, they're likely to think that having their loved ones by their side is the best place. Plus, even if their loved one IS in a better place, they are not together, and that can hurt.

Acknowledging Loss

Grief is unique to the individual. The same exact phrases can be both the right thing to say and the wrong thing to say, depending on the person who is grieving. Some people want to hear, "I'm sorry," while others feel like that's a sign of pity.

But nearly everyone wants their loss to be acknowledged. The best approach: Show up for people who have lost someone or something they love. Don't ignore it, even if you don't know the person well.

"If it's a coworker or a parent at your child's school, see if you can arrange some sort of group card or care package," says Nielsen. "Those small acts of kindness can help the person who is grieving feel supported."

If you do know the person or pet who died, tell the mourner a story about that person. There is no greater gift than a story about a loved one at a time when it seems there will never be new stories.

To find a grief counselor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Peggy Nielsen is an experienced licensed professional counselor and is the program manager of SandCastles, which she founded in 1997.

Categories : FeelWell

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