Knowing what to say to a grieving friend or family member can be difficult. You may be unfamiliar with what to say to them, especially during a funeral. Others fear saying the wrong thing and upsetting or offending a person going through bereavement.
These feelings are common. It is important to remember, however, that the bereaved are going through a very difficult time and need your support. In most cases, saying something is better than saying nothing at all.
When you first speak to someone bereaved, it is important to understand that their grief is unique to them, so their emotions or reaction to you may not be what you expect.
Talking about their loved one can be comforting for them, but it can also be a painful subject, so try to be sensitive with how you approach the conversation. If the bereaved start talking about their loss, try not to change the subject. When they decide to talk about their feelings or their loved one, allow them to fully express themselves as they will have a lot of emotions that they need to talk about.
Offering the bereaved emotional advice or trying to cheer them up is rarely a good idea. Instead, try to create an environment where the bereaved feel comfortable talking things through. Sometimes even sitting quietly with them can be of comfort.
Having lost a loved one recently, they will be experiencing a lot of powerful emotions. This might make it hard to be around them sometimes, especially if they are acting angrily towards you. If this happens, try not to take it personally and give them some space.
What to say to the bereaved
- “I’m so sorry for your loss”: Familiar to many, this is a simple and sincere way to show sympathy. It doesn't matter that it's not original. It's always better to say something than nothing.
- “I’ll call you in a few days to see how you’re doing”: This shows you care and gives the bereaved the opportunity to refuse your invitation if they would prefer to be left alone.
- “I remember when...": Sharing personal memories of their loved one can be comforting for the bereaved. Try to keep in mind, though, that some people may not feel comfortable talking about their loved one - it all depends on the individual.
What not to say to the bereaved
- “I know just how you feel”: Try not to compare your experience of dealing with bereavement with their feelings of grief. It isn’t comforting, and it may feel as if you’re trivialising their experience.
- “Time heals all wounds”: People who say this mean well, but the bereaved don’t want you to fix their pain. They just want to know you're there for them.
- “They are in a better place now”: Again, a well-meaning phrase, but try not to make religious remarks unless you know that they share the same beliefs.
- “You shouldn’t feel guilty”: The bereaved can sometimes feel guilt after the loss of a loved one, but saying they shouldn't feel guilty can invalidate how they’re feeling.
What to do
- Support them by writing a letter, sending an email or text message, calling them, or speaking to them face-to-face
- Let them know that they can talk to you and share their feelings
- Listen to them
- Offer practical support
- Reach out to them on particular dates that may be difficult for them, such as birthdays and anniversaries
- Recommend bereavement support organisations to them if you feel they could benefit from such support
What not to do
- Avoid them
- Judge the way they grieve
- Rush them through grief
- Worry if they don’t want to share their feelings or talk about their loved one