It’s hard to know what people going through a loss really need, and even harder to know what to say to someone who lost a loved one. But according to the American Psychological Association, research shows most people can recover from loss if they have social support –so how can you give that to them? “I work with people in trauma, and grieving is a process that takes time,” says psychologist Dr Deborah Serani, award-winning author of Depression in Later Life. “The goal when talking to someone who has experienced an enormous loss is to express your heartfelt concerns in a way that doesn’t minimise, invalidate, or cause an emotional blunder.” Simply letting the grieving person know you’re there for them is most helpful. “Phrases like, ‘I’m here for you’ help grieving individuals feel comforted instead of directed,” Dr Serani says.
Knowing how to help in the days immediately after someone dies is difficult – but these approaches might help.
Although “Let me know if you need anything,” seems like a helpful phrase, in reality, it places the onus on the bereaved person to find something for you do (plus, this story will prove why you should stop saying “let me know if you need anything”). Instead, pick a task and just tell them you’re going to do it. “Sometimes the smallest things mean the most,” says Joan E. Markwell, author of Softening the Grief, who lost her own daughter to cancer. Coming by to do laundry or other housework, stopping at the store to pick up groceries, or performing other mundane tasks that the bereaved person might not feel up to can help relieve some of their day-to-day burdens. Instead of figuring out what to say to someone who lost a loved one, figure out what to do for them.
Among the things you should never say to a widow is, “You’re so strong.” Although it’s meant to be encouraging, it can feel like anything but. Instead, when trying to figure out what to say to someone who lost a loved one, try this. “We are exhausted from trying to look strong when we feel weak as kittens,” Markwell says. “Our damaged foundations of strength must be rebuilt on a piece at a time.” Instead, acknowledge that it’s difficult to be strong and that it’s OK not to be right now. “This takes the pressure off to act and be something we don’t feel at this time,” Markwell says.
A grief survey by Slate and editor Meghan O’Rouke, author of one of the gripping memoirs by women who overcame the impossible, The Long Goodbye, found that sentiments expressing false comfort were hurtful. Never assume the bereaved believes in a higher power, or even if they do, that invoking a “reason,” a “better place,” or “God’s plan” will be helpful. Instead, survey participants simply sought recognition and acknowledgment for their grief, without condition. “When talking to someone who’s grieving, acknowledge little can be done to make a grieving person feel better,” Dr Serani says. “You can’t repair the loss.” Markwell agrees. “There is never a good enough reason for our loved ones to be taken from us,” she says. Expressing this can help the mourner feel validated.
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A guaranteed way of minimising a person’s loss? Telling them they’re not the first person to lose someone. “We realise a zillion people lose loved ones, but I am the first who lost my child, parent, sibling, aunt, or grandparent,” Markwell says. “Telling us others have kept on going does not, in our minds, lessen the hurt.” Instead, she advises switching that phrase around to convey others’ experiences without comparison or judgment. “This lets us know how hard they struggled but eventually were able to move on,” Markwell says.
One of the signs you have incredible empathy is avoiding platitudes like, “Time heals all wounds,” when trying to figure out what to say to someone who lost a loved one. Recent research has shown that the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) don’t exist one by one but rather in different orders or even at once – so it’s not as if one just “gets over” grief by a specific time. “When talking to someone who’s grieving, focus on the right now and not the future, and don’t put a time limit on grief,” Dr Serani says. Markwell describes grief as a wound that scabs over but never totally heals, so while you can express the hope that it will lessen, the most important thing is to reassure the bereaved of your ongoing support.
One of the funeral etiquette tips everyone should know is when it’s best not to share stories about yourself – even when you think they’re relevant. Although you want to empathize with the bereaved, almost losing someone, while scary, is not the same thing. “You only had a clue how it might feel to lose someone very close to you,” Markwell says, so that’s what you should express. Recognize that although you can only begin to imagine what they’re going through, you’ll be with them to help carry the load. This makes it about them rather than about you, Markwell says.
Although you’re looking for the exact perfect thing to write in a condolence message, you might not find it. It’s OK to admit you don’t know what to say. “It’s never easy to deal with death,” Dr Serani says. “Though we know it’s an inevitable part of life, talking about death is something most of us aren’t really good at because the subject is so painful.” So simply admitting you’re at a loss for words can be the most honest expression of condolence. “Statements like this are truths of the moment, and because they are so heartfelt and real, they will offer comfort,” Dr Serani says. “The focus is simply on the moment that is being felt and the reality of the situation – that one cannot fix things, or wish things to be different.”
Science has shown we need to stop feeling bad about feeling bad, and this goes for grief as well. However the bereaved feels (sad, angry, yearning, numb) is OK, and reinforcing that their emotions are valid is a great way to be supportive. You should “focus on the feelings of the bereaved,” Dr Serani says.” Be non-directive and let the grieving person just ‘be,’ instead of telling them how to feel.” In addition, even though their perspective on life may have changed – perhaps permanently – reassure them your support for them will not alter, Markwell says.
There are magical health benefits of hugs – and a physical touch can be all that is needed to make a grieving person feel comforted. “Sometimes no words can go a long way,” Dr. Serani says. “If you don’t know what to say or are worried about upsetting a bereaving person, offer a hug, or a touch on the shoulder. It can convey so much.” Research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that emotions including sympathy and love can be communicated via touch. Plus, sometimes just listening and not talking at all is the best way to help someone cope. “Listening is a priority and so needed,” Markwell says. “Just listen. Don’t judge. Don’t give advice. The grieving need a little bit for a short time and a whole lot for a long time.”
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