When someone we care about is grieving a major loss, we often want to say something to offer comfort. Frequently though, there’s uncertainty about what to say or do to offer solace to someone who is grieving. Your message should be one of caring and compassion, offering to lend help and support in the ways they need it most.
The Do’s & Don’ts When Talking About Grief
Researchers suggest that listening is the key to helping a grieving friend.1
Whether that person is coping with the death of a parent, grieving the loss of a child, or experiencing anticipatory grief, it’s normal not to know what to say. In reality, there’s nothing to say that can offer a quick fix for their emotional pain. Your aim should be to speak from a place of compassion.
People often want the person who is grieving to feel less alone. As such, they may try to say something to indicate that they understand how they’re feeling. Because we grieve in different ways, this may not be the correct thing to say. Being honest and saying you are at a loss for words or you don’t know what to say can be a better starting point.2
Here are do’s and don’ts on how to comfort someone who lost a loved one:
- Recognize the loss
- Acknowledge that you can’t know what they are feeling
- Admit that you don’t know what to say/can’t make it better
- Give a warm hug or a kind gesture like holding a hand
- Reassure them that you will always be there to listen when they need to talk
- Offer practical, specific assistance like bringing over food, running errands, helping with kids, and managing the logistics of any funeral or service
- Express a favorite memory about the person who died and gauge their reaction
- Be present and listen
- Don’t try to change the subject
- Don’t be vague about offering help (e.g., “Let me know what I can do.”)
- Don’t make assumptions about their religious beliefs
- Don’t try to “fix” the loss
- Don’t avoid the topic
- Don’t put a timeline on their grief
What to Say When Someone Loses a Loved One
Let the person who lost a loved one know that you’re there to support them and listen to them in the days ahead. Grief does not end at the funeral. If you can, reassure them that you will be available to lend ongoing emotional and practical support as needed. Try to stay in touch with them in person, by phone, through email, or cards.
Knowing what to say to someone who has lost a parent, friend, or loved one can be challenging. The needs and mood of a grieving person fluctuate, so what may be a good thing to say one moment may not be as effective or comforting the next. Where they are in the five stages of grief can also affect their emotional status
Acknowledge the Loss
Acknowledge that there has been a great loss and you cannot presume to know exactly how the bereaved feels. Focus not on yourself, but on the person suffering the loss.
Here are helpful things to say to someone who has lost a loved one:3, 4
- “I am so sorry for your loss”
- “I wish I had the right words; just know I care”
- “I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can”
- “I’m sorry I can’t make things better”
- “I’m sorry this is so hard for you”
- “I’m sorry things are so tough right now”
Do your best to provide comfort by remembering the lost loved one, validating the person’s pain, and offering encouragement.
The following statements can comfort someone who lost a loved one:
- “My favorite memory of them is…”
- “Grief has no end date, so just so you know what you are feeling is to be expected”
- “You are not going crazy”
- “You may not get over this, but somehow you will get through it”
Recognize Important Dates
Recognize that dates like birthdays, marital anniversaries, holidays, or death anniversaries can be especially painful due to the anniversary effect.
Try saying these things to someone who lost a loved one:
- “I know this anniversary is going to be a tough day for you and I want to be there for you to help”
- “I know this birthday/anniversary will bring back a lot of memories and I am here if you need me to help get through the day”
- “What can I do to help you get through it”
What Not to Say to Someone Who Lost a Loved One
People often feel compelled to say something – anything! – to someone who has suffered a loss. Unfortunately, many common phrases can feel insensitive and judgmental.
Don’t Refer to Your Religious Beliefs
Some statements reflect your own values or religious beliefs and may conflict with the feelings of the person who experienced the loss.
Don’t say these things to someone who lost a loved one:5, 6
- “It’s part of God’s plan”
- “They’re in a better place now”
- “There’s a reason for everything”
Don’t Minimize Their Pain
While potentially good-intentioned, sometimes people can say things that minimize the loss and grief of the individual.
- “Look at what you have to be thankful for”
- “This is behind you now”
- “They were sick for a long time and maybe it is better now they’re gone”
Don’t Be Pushy
Avoid statements that begin with “You should” or “You will.” These statements are too direct. Instead begin comments with “Have you thought about” or “You might try.”
- “Be strong”
- “It’s time to get on with your life”
- “Don’t cry”
Don’t Compare Your Loss to Theirs
People grieve in unique ways. Grief comparisons turn the focus on you rather than the person grieving. The fact is, you may not know what they are feeling.
- “I know how you feel”
- “If you do XYZ, you will feel better. It worked for me”
Don’t Be Presumptuous
This is especially true if you didn’t have a close relationship with the deceased person. Don’t assume to know what they would have wanted for whoever is left behind.
- “The person who has died would not want you to feel sad”
How to Help Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One
When in doubt about how to comfort someone who has lost a loved one, remember that actions can be more effective than words. Active ways to help a loved one cope with grief include doing a specific task for them, frequently checking in with them, remembering and reaching out on specific dates, and helping them locate a qualified therapist.
Do a Specific Task
This might look like bringing them a meal, helping them with childcare, cleaning their kitchen, or running an errand. Keep the plans concrete. For instance, vaguely offering help or asking someone to let you know if they need help is often less helpful than saying, “Can I drop off dinner next Wednesday?”
Check In With Them
Whether you do this via phone call, text, card, or an in-person visit, it’s important to check in at a regular frequency. It doesn’t need to be complicated; just remind your loved one that you’re thinking about them and what they’re going through. How often you check in depends largely on your relationship with the person.
Reach Out On Important Dates
Make an effort to remember specific dates like birthdays, anniversaries, and even death anniversaries. These make good moments to check in, because your loved one probably feels especially isolated and sad. Consider sending a card or a simple text.
Help Them Find a Therapist
If you think your loved one who just lost someone is at risk for depression or self-harm, support them by helping them reach out to receive professional help. Build out a list of resources, including physicians, grief groups, and counselors.
How to Find a Therapist
If you or someone you love is ready to find a therapist, start your search in an online directory. A free, comprehensive list can get you started, allowing you to filter your search by location, cost, types of therapy, and more.
Depression vs. Sadness
There is a difference between depression vs. sadness. Sometimes, bereavement evolves from sadness into depression or even thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Someone with depression often notes symptoms of depression that last for at least two weeks and interfere with their ability to function at home, work, and school. If you observe these symptoms, encourage the person to get help from a therapist specializing in grief counseling.
Common characteristics of depression include:1
- Low mood or increased irritability
- Low motivation
- Low energy
- Significant changes to sleeping routine
- Weight gain, weight loss, or diet changes
- Difficulty thinking clearly, focusing, and making healthy choices
- Increased feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Suicidal ideation
Final Thoughts on How to Console Someone Who Lost a Loved One
It’s not easy to know what to say or how to console someone who has lost a loved one, but any of the listed statements or even a simple hug can make a big difference.7 Know that you can show support just by being there for them.
For Further Reading
- The Compassionate Friends: A non-profit organization to help parents who have lost a child. It offers support groups, resources, education, and on-line chat rooms.
- Hospice Foundation of America: offers grief counseling to patients and family members of someone who has died.
- Widowed Village online Forum: Part of Soaring Spirits International-online community available 24/7 offering peer based support groups offering grief counseling and support.
- Best Books on Grief
- Online Therapist Directory: Sort therapists by specialty, cost, availability and more. Watch intro videos and see articles written by the therapists you’re considering working with. When you’ve found a good match, book an online therapy appointment with them directly.
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health