Having a friend or family member lose a loved one is always devastating and delicate. According to a WebMD survey, “Grief: Beyond the 5 Stages,” respondents experienced sadness (84%) and depression (41%) following the death of a loved one.
It’s a natural response to want to console someone who’s experienced a loss, but this difficult time may leave you feeling lost about how to soothe a grieving friend or relative. Finding the right words that offer meaningful sympathy can be challenging. For example, commonly used phrases like “my condolences” might not accurately convey your earnest support for someone in mourning.
1 “Losing someone you love is so hard. It’s OK to not be OK.”
A trite expression to say to someone who’s grieving is “be strong.” It’s well-meaning but it can be problematic. It could unintentionally put an expectation on the mourner to disregard their pain and grief, potentially for the comfort of those around them.
Instead, you can acknowledge that experiencing the death of a loved one is a difficult process and that it’s normal to not have the emotional and mental strength to put on a stoic facade. Mentioning that it’s OK to feel hurt, anger, and heartache validates their experience.
2 “Grief has no timeline. Take whatever time you need to heal.”
Fifty-three percent of participants in the same study said they “encountered people whose sympathy seemed to have an expiration date.” Of that group, 42% said that being told to move on or get closure made them feel worse.
Setting an expiration date for grief only puts more pressure on the grieving person. The reality is that people process grief on their own schedules. For some, it can take months and for others, it lasts for years. The alternative statement above reassures the grieving party that you respect their personal healing process.
3 “Joe always lit up the room with his laugh. I remember . . .”
If you personally knew the person who passed away, you might have little-known anecdotes that depict how they were meaningful in your life.
Sharing fond memories of loved ones who’ve passed away is one way to honor them. It also gives mourners new stories to cherish as they process their grief.
4 “You’re not alone in this. I’m here for you.”
Grieving can feel like a lonely experience. After all, each person’s experience and coping mechanisms for loss are different. Affirming that the mourner isn’t alone and that you’re there to support them is a simple, but impactful, sentiment.
“I’m here for you” may mean you’re physically present, like offering a firm and long hug or simply sitting in silence with your grieving friend or relative. Being available for someone in mourning can also occur from a distance, including talking on the phone if they’re ready. Ultimately, it signals that you’re able and willing to hold space for them during this difficult time when they need you.
5 “I’ll help you with _____ this weekend.”
Another overused phrase is, “Let me know if you need anything.” More often than not, the grieving person—who may be in shock, in anguish, emotionally overwhelmed, or all of the above—won’t take you up on your offer. Yet, 63% of survey respondents said they felt fatigued after the death of a loved one.
Instead of putting the onus on them to tell you how you can help, think about what they might need in the coming days. For example, if they’re a coworker, you might say, “I can take care of the rest of this client report for you if you need time off.”
Offering to send meals, help with household chores, or provide childcare are other options if you have a close relationship. For example, “I’ll take the kids to the park tomorrow so you can get some rest.”
When trying this alternative route, don’t be pushy or intrusive. If they decline, respect their boundaries with grace.
Express that you care
Landing on the appropriate words to authentically and empathetically express your condolences is different for everyone. Use these options as a starting point, and stick to language that supports the emotional and mental health of those in mourning.