A few years after my grandfather died, I sat with my grandmother playing the crossword puzzle as we did most days. Something in the moment took her thoughts back to her husband. She told me what was on her mind, “You know, I can’t tell you a word of what people said when Howard died, but I can still look around the room in my mind and tell you everyone who was there.” In her time of grief, what mattered most was that she had people there to support her.
Grief is a journey. It is a unique journey for each person. Circumstances may be similar to another person’s grief, but no two people grieve the same way. Some are able to get a sense of routine in life back within weeks. Others take years. No one ever “gets over” the death. We learn to live with it.
As a pastor, one of the questions I hear often is, “What do I say to someone who is grieving?” While people like my grandmother may not remember the words said — she was in shock during the dying, death, burial, and immediate aftermath — others will tell of hurtful words or at least words that were not helpful. With that, I offer these suggestions for what to say or what not to say to those who grieve. This is what I’ve found useful over the years.
10 things to say to those who grieve
Nothing. Say nothing, but be there. Don’t worry about the “right” words. Just show up. It matters.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” It is true, so tell them. It lets them know of your sympathy.
“I can’t imagine how you are feeling.” This validates the pain the person is feeling.
“I want you to know I am staying right here by your side.” And then do it.
“I will pray for you.” But only if you will actually pray.
“I will always remember this about him _______.” Many who grieve are frustrated no one wants to talk about the one who died.
“Do you want to talk about it?” This gives them permission not to talk and at the same time a safe place to talk if they want to.
“What are you thinking about through all of this?” This gives them permission to talk about anything. Just listen.
“I’m bringing over a lasagna.” Or some variation of helping - mow the grass, pick up kids, clean the house, etc. Get practical.
“I love you.” Three powerful words.
10 things NOT to say to those who grieve
“He is in a better place.” It may be true, but all the person who grieves wants is for the person to be alive and with them. There is an opposite of this that is terrible to say: “He is in hell.” Yes, some have said that during a person’s worst moment of grief. Even if you believe that is so, don’t be a jerk. Keep it to yourself.
“She brought this on herself.” Again, in some cases it is true, but this isn’t the time to cast blame.
“At least he lived a long life. So many people die young.” I’ve sat with too many adult children as an elderly parent dies. It hurts no matter what age.
“You can still have another child.” Just…no. Don’t say it.
“God must have wanted another angel in heaven.” Besides trivializing, cliché, and bad theology, this blames God.
“I know how you feel. When I went through this…” It’s not about you. Don’t make it so.
“Be strong.” If the person is feeling weak, telling them to stop it doesn’t help. Basically, this is saying “stop hurting.”
“Call if you need anything.” Just do what is needed. Don’t put the responsibility on the bereaved.
“Everything will be okay.” That may be, but in the moment it is NOT “okay” and saying it diminishes those present feelings.
“You’ll feel better if you get rid of her things.” It is up to them when to do this. Some may need to have the things of their loved one around throughout the grieving journey.
The best responses are those that focus on feelings, don’t try to “fix” everything, and are in no hurry. The worst responses don’t validate the deep sense of loss, push too hard for action, and try to hurry grief along.