Understanding what to say when someone dies can be one of the most challenging moments for any friend or family member. The death of a loved one stands out as a personal and painful experience, but compassion from someone’s social circle can prove transformative.
Research shows that people undergoing the complex emotion of grief need connection more than ever. A strong social support network reduces rates of long-term depression, according to a Pennsylvania State University study that followed 250 older adults for two years after the loss of their spouses. Participants who felt they could confide in those around them also reported better physical health. For advice on how to console someone, follow these do’s and don’ts from clinical social worker and grief specialist Julie Farr.
1. Do signal your willingness to listen
Often, the perfect thing to say is simply, “I’m here.” It means you’re committed to being patient and open to the repetitive nature of the grieving process. “People need to tell the story over and over to work toward accepting that that person is gone from their life, because it seems so surreal,” says Farr, who has worked in grief counseling in the Kansas City area for 13 years. “To be willing to listen to that story again and again is the greatest and most healing gift you can give somebody.”
Communicate directly and simply: “I want to listen whenever you’re ready to talk.”
2. Don’t force a conversation
It’s crucial that the person grieving knows talking about their loss is an option — not a requirement. Their desire to confide may vary day to day. When they don’t feel like talking, offer to provide companionship and find other ways to include them. Inviting them on low-pressure outings, like a walk, a movie night, or even a routine trip to the grocery store can serve as a comforting distraction and show your loyalty.
3. Do understand every loss is different
From the loss of a spouse to mourning for a close friend, the death of a loved one is always a unique experience. As people age, death becomes a more frequent occurrence — but don’t expect your loved one to react to a second or third loss in the same way they did the first.
Variables like the type of relationship, the length of time people knew each other, and the suddenness of the loss affect someone’s response. Grief can be inconsistent, so resist the impulse to search for patterns or make sense of it.
Despite its individual nature, every person faces grief. Farr notes that this shared foundation can help establish empathy and destigmatize the grieving process.
Validate and build trust: “I know how hard it is to lose someone you love, because I’ve also lost people I love.”
4.Don’t say “I know how you feel”
While relating to the general difficulty of grief can be valuable, attempting to put yourself in another person’s shoes isn’t. Friends, family, and acquaintances often reach for this common saying when struggling with how to react. Despite its good intentions, Farr emphasizes that we can never truly know how another person feels or fully understand the part a lost loved one played in their life. Instead of achieving its goal, this phrase can feel dismissive or shut down conversation.
5. Do ask your loved one what helps them cope
Have you ever wished you could tell someone exactly how to be there for you? Enabling people to define the level of support they want and need can feel liberating. Instead of searching for the perfect thing to say or do, ask questions. This empowers people experiencing a loss to create a personalized roadmap for their own journey with grief.
For instance, how does the person who’s grieving want to frame and discuss the death of a loved one? “Ask, ‘Do you have a spiritual or faith-based practice that helps you understand this difficult time?’” Farr says. “It’s nice when that’s a question, not an assumption.” This can be a religious faith, but it can also be a meditation practice or a personal ritual.
Similarly, ask your friend or family member what they need and do your best to accommodate. It could be actions, not words, Farr stresses. “In those early stages of grief, people feel like they can’t get up or move forward. It makes a difference when someone helps to make sure there’s food on the table, the lawn gets mowed, or the dog is walked,” she says.
Ask what your loved one needs: “Would you like me to pick things up at the grocery store?’”
6. Don’t rely on clichés
When struggling with what to say to someone who’s lost a loved one, relying on platitudes is common. But instead of feeling comforting, clichés can be isolating. For example, Farr cautions against well-meaning phrases like, “They’re in a better place now,” and, “God needed another angel,” as these may ring hollow.
In those early stages of grief, people feel like they can’t get up or move forward. It makes a difference when someone helps to make sure there’s food on the table, the lawn gets mowed, or the dog is walked.Julie Farr, grief specialist and clinical social worker
7. Do keep checking in at regular, prolonged intervals
For the first few weeks after the death of a loved one, friends and family are typically eager to give support. But long after the funeral, when the casseroles and sympathy cards stop arriving, loss really starts to settle in. Check in at one month, two months, six months, and beyond.
Keep in mind that formerly cherished milestones may sting. Whether it’s someone’s first birthday, holiday season, or wedding anniversary since their loved one died, these bittersweet reminders can all present an opportunity to check in.
Acknowledge, affirm, and support: “I know it’s the first Christmas since your mom died. How can I support you?”
8. Don’t assume grief goes away
Grief doesn’t have an expiration date. Research in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that bereavement continued to have long-term effects on mood, well-being, and overall happiness 10 years later.
As Farr sums up, “Remember that every loss, to the people who are experiencing it, is huge. Just assume it’s a big deal. And treat the person who has had a loss as someone who needs extra care.” Knowing what to say to someone who has lost a loved one can be the first step in making sure this extra care shines through.