What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving

I mentioned to a friend that, after receiving notification of my mate’s death, few people from a certain online group sent an acknowledgement, and she said perhaps it was because they did not know what to say. This is probably true. Most comments posted to me on the various threads began with: “I don’t know what to say.”  Of course, being writers, these people followed that statement with very touching responses, but I also received touching remarks from non-writers. To be honest, all responses mean a lot to me video[7]– grief is such an isolating experience, that any indication of concern helps remind me that people do care, that perhaps I’m not totally alone after all.

If you cannot think of anything eloquent to say in the face of another’s grief, say something simple. Say, “I’m sorry.” Say, “I’m thinking about you.” Say, “My heart goes out to you.” Say, “I shed tears for you.” And there is always the standard, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”

If you knew the deceased, talk about him. The bereaved (a terrible word, so namby-pamby and doesn’t really connote how truly bereft one is  after such a loss) will find comfort in your memories. If you didn’t know him, you can talk about your own experiences with the death of a loved one, though be aware that grief piled upon grief might be a bit overwhelming for the one left behind. Despite that, the stories people share with me make me realize that though the pain seems impossible to live through, it will eventually become tolerable. At least, I hope it will.

Many people told me to “hang in there,” but although well-meaning it is not, perhaps, the best thing to say to someone who is grieving. Depression is a part of the process, and “hanging in there” makes one wonder “hanging from what? And where?” (If you are one of those who used this expression, I hope I’m not hurting your feelings. Rest assured I took your words in the spirit offered, and was pleased that you thought of me.)

If you truly cannot find words of your own, share a poem that helped you get through your grief. Although grief is such a personal experience, the emotions portrayed in poetry are universal.

If you can’t think of something to say immediately, but eventually think of the perfect thing, say it then. It is never too late. Grief lasts a very long time. As the days, weeks, months pass, others forget, but the person who is grieving doesn’t. Any indication that you are thinking of her in her sorrow is comforting.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you say. Extending a bit of comfort, showing that you haven’t forgotten, showing that you care — those are the important things.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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24 Responses to “What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving”

  1. spirit2go Says:

    All your words are very on target….I shed tears for you
    (and me too!)

  2. mikidemillion Says:

    Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m one of those who feels the pain but can’t find the words. The most comforting thing someone once said to me after the loss of a dear friend was “It’s always harder for those left behind.” It really helped me at the time and I remember it to this day, at least 20 years later.

  3. joylene Says:

    Another phrase to avoid is “In time you’ll see it’s for the best.”

    Another: “Something good will come out of it.” I still shake my head at that one.

    This one doesn’t work either: “It was God’s Plan.” Whether you believe in God or not, nobody wants to hear that God intended for you to feel as if someone had just reached in and reaped your heart out.

  4. knightofswords Says:

    I felt rather confused and tongue-tied because somehow I missed the actual announcement, the details, when it happened, why it happened, so (speaking for myself) this made it difficult to say anything worthwhile. I felt like I came in on the middle of a discussion where others seemed to know details that were not available to everyone who wanted to leave a comment.

    This is often the case. Grief isolates us, as you said, and I know that from having been there. I’m not very good with platitudes because they seem so lame and so wrong, though I guess maybe they are better to hear than nothing. Grief is strange, for we’ve all been there, yet finding something to say seems to be tangled up with belief systems and personalities and support groups. so there’s often the feeling that one’s going to step in it, so to speak, and of course we don’t want to do that.

    Malcolm

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m sorry, Malcolm. I thought I told you of my mate’s death, but apparently the last message I sent was to inform you of the diagnosis. The doctors said he had three to six months to live. He only had three weeks. I’m still reeling.

      And everything you said was perfect.

      • knightofswords Says:

        I knew about the six-months diagnosis. That alone must have been bad enough for you two to hear; but how far off it was! To think that time had graced you with the “luxury” of being prepared, then not to have it.

        These posts, I hope it’s helpful to write down how you feel. It would be for me.

        Malcolm

  5. Kat Sheridan Says:

    You found the perfect word–not “the bereaved”, but “the bereft”. I think of you so often. Though we have never met, and I knew far too late of this loved one in your life, still, I think of you and Jeff almost daily, and send my prayers to God, and my thoughts to you. And there are tears, even as I write this. I have never known a grief such as yours, but any heart with a shred of humanity understands the sorrow of loss. If you feel arms wrapped around you at some odd moment, it is me, sending you a hug.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you, Kat, for the comment, the words, the tears, the hugs, the prayers. This is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s nice to know that I am remembered as I try to find my way in this terribly alien world.

  6. Shari Says:

    Just dropping by your blog for the first time (linked via my Mom’s blog – careann.wordpress.com). I don’t know what you’re going through, only that, clearly, you’re in the midst of life-changing, world-shaking grief. If you don’t mind hugs from strangers, allow me to offer you a virtual hug….

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts openly & honestly. Peace be with you.

  7. bookjunkie Says:

    the worse one I got is “you gotto be strong” I was so angry…why do I gotto be….I am crumblng here. A hug is the best. Talking about the person who is gone…. with love helps too.

  8. sandy Says:

    Not long ago I heard from a friend about her husband who died suddenly of an unforeseen heart attack at age 59, also a couple whose son survived three years in Afghanistan only to be killed in a car accident back at home. In both of these cases, the wife, the parents, they said they felt better talking about their lost loved ones, so that is what we did, talked about those vibrant people and what they did with their lives. I didn’t know your husband so don’t know what to say about him but I think we all want to be remembered and talking about him both honors him and hopefully comforts you? If it is something you can imagine doing, I for one, would love to hear more about him. I lost my brother when he was 19 and I was 23. He was, before my 2 daughters were born, the most important person in my life because with our parents divorced and remarried when we were young, Dougie and I were the tightknit little family in the middle. If I had not already had my older daughter I would have tried to follow him somehow. I couldn’t talk about him or anything for two years, I mean I really could not open my mouth without crying, but later it was helpful to talk about him, I’m talking about him now 42 years later. I still miss him, the sense of loss, the sense of grief has never gone away, but it is different. It is a part of my life I can live with. You are a creative person and you have responsibilities to others. These things will keep you going and what you eventually write out of this grief (I suspect you will one day write a book inspired by it) might well help people you don’t even know. We all die sometime, some of us we wish we didn’t have to get up in the morning and work at the business of life, but then we discover, sometimes by accident, that we did have a purpose and we did help someone else who was grateful that we did “hang in there” (which for me just means keep on living for now).

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      When people would told me to “hang in there,” I kept visualizing nooses. So not something I needed to think about when I could barely get through the day! I will talk about him sometime — maybe after the second anniversary. For some reason, I’m still protecting his privacy, but when my book is published next year, everyone will know about him (well, everyone who reads the book!) Didn’t I tell you about the grief book I wrote? I compiled the best entries of my grief journal, blogs, and posthumous letters to him, and compiled them into a book. It’s making my editor cry. One woman who read it says it’s the best grief book she ever read, another thinks it should be required reading.

      It makes me nervous, thinking of that book out there where anyone can read. It’s not the same thing as a novel. I mean, this is me! My thoughts, feelings, experience. It will break my heart to get terrible reviews. Or not. I think my heart has been so broken that a bad review won’t draw but a drop of blood.

      It must have been hard to lose your brother at such a young age and such a vulnerable time. It’s amazing we manage to survive such grief.

  9. Yaya Says:

    I know it is nothing like the loss of your soul-mate, but I do un’erstan’. I have never ‘Gotten Over’ seeing my mama suffer for so long an’ I honestly don’t think I ever will. An’ like you said, we’ve all experienced some form of grief, yet it is the most difficult things we can watch someone else go through.

    There really are no words to ease the pain or soften the repeated reminder that a part of you is missing. I so wish I had not been one of those who didn’t show up because I didn’t know what to say. All I knew to do was pray for your comfort an’ then… keep praying. Though it does not help, my heart cries with you, every single day. Please know that I do care, as so many others have shown that they care. We love you.

    Hugs
    ~ Yaya

  10. Cathy "Elaine Garverick" Gingrich Says:

    Thank you for
    helping others to know what to say. I agree. “I’m so sorry” is enough. But people do get nervous, and worry they will say something to hurt one who is already in pain. They (here, I mean myself)tend to babble on, but their hearts are in the right place. I’ve lived long enough to be on both sides. Love and patience is needed all around. God bless. Elaine

  11. Amrita Skye Blaine Says:

    Hello–
    I am new to your blog, but very touched by it. I can only imagine the sorrow and pain that you have been through. My eyes well up! I will think of you each day–kind and loving thoughts, even though we do not know each other.
    I hope you will keep writing so that I may read.
    Skye

  12. Malene Says:

    My experience is that people say the strangest things to one who is grieving. I have had many very interesting responses lopped at me in the past 2 years (My mother died almost 2 years ago and my beloved life partner 10 months ago). Some are almost funny, many are sweet, some make you want to scream and a minority are down-right hurtful and there are ones which are just bizarre. However, when everyone has spoken their piece it is my experience that from those who matter to me, and to whom my sorrow and grief matter – the way they say it – however awkward and uncomfortable, even pedestrian that manner may be – I know for sure that it ALWAYS comes from the right place and is intended to show me, to really make me feel and understand their love and care for me. So, that’s how I take it. From the few who are merely peripheral observers, … their strange ways with what to say barely register since they are… well … peripheral.

    All in all, I don’t sweat the presentation. Conversely, though, I am so grateful when someone gets it just right and those few who do are, in turn, usually rewarded with tears (lucky them). (Pat you have already been so rewarded on a number of occasions … lucky you!)


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