Tuesday, February 04, 2014

How to talk to someone who is grieving

Recently I was in a conversation about how so many people do not know what to say to the loved ones of someone who is ill, or who have just lost someone dear.

I understand this. I used to be so uncomfortable with loss. I would panic, and I would avoid. How do you talk to someone who has just lost a parent, when you still have both of yours, and life isn't fair? How do you make them feel better?

And then I learned that they do not expect you to make them feel better; in fact, the odds are you will not, in any large way. You might momentarily, though.

And here I should note that I do not mean to sound preachy, and if you have anything to add, I would welcome it.

Because here's the problem with not saying anything, or with crossing the street to avoid talking to someone you would previously have chatted with: it comes across as uncaring, unkind. Maybe even rude and weird.

I know from my own experience with my dad's suicide attempts, and then from his death, that many people do not know what to say. There were people who weren't close friends, but who I knew cared about me, who did not say anything.

By then I knew that it was lack of knowing what to say, rather than not caring about me. But it still creates some awkwardness.

Sometimes they will avoid you. Or if they don't, it would be easier if they did, because there is this big THING hanging there unspoken, and your conversation is all kinds of trivial and odd.

A couple people said something like, "I feel weird..." or I just don't know what to say..." and that works perfectly. Grieving people understand this. Nobody really knows what to say.

It just fucking sucks.

You can also say, depending on the person's profanity tolerance, exactly that: It just fucking sucks.

But the simplest thing to say, I think, is this. "I'm so sorry." If you are a hugger, and you want to give the person a hug, ask if they would like one.

If you don't know the person well, but well enough that bumping into them and not saying anything would be awkward, you can say, "I heard the news. I'm so sorry."

You don't need to ask any questions. You don't have to offer to cook them dinner. You don't need to share your experience or feelings.

I would add that unless you are friends and you know the grieving person is religious and will be in agreement and be comforted by this thought, do not say, "They are in a better place."

Because that can make a person stabby, because they are probably feeling like, no, in fact, the better place would be STILL HERE WITH ME.

Also do not say things like, "You're strong. God only gives people what they can handle."

It turns out that I can handle a fuck-ton, but I don't believe God has dished out extra helpings to me because I'm strong enough.

So if you're someone who gets flustered, who wants to run away, just remember: "I'm so sorry."

That's all you need to say.


  1. Thank you for this, Lisa.

    I would add, if the person is grieving a miscarried baby: please, people, do not say "It wasn't meant to be."

    1. Oh, yes, absolutely agree, Laura. That is such an important addition. Thank you.

  2. This is a very thoughtful and important post, Lisa. Generosity of kindness goes a long way in times of grief.

    1. Thanks, Heather. I believe that is true. I remember so vividly people's kindnesses when I was really grieving.

  3. You're so right, Lisa. It's one of the biggest lessons I've learned as I've gotten older. Just let people know you're there for them, and listen to them when they need to talk. You don't need to say much in return. A simple, "I'm so sorry to hear it. It really sucks, and I know you must be really hurting," goes such a long way.

    1. Yes. I think people are afraid that they need to cheer you up, or that they won't say enough of the right things, but you barely need to say anything. It's the sentiment and the human connection that helps.

  4. The ny times has a great article on this topic. I'm sorry for your loss. It does suck. mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/opinion/brooks-the-art-of-presence.html?_r=0&referrer=


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