What to say (or not say)

You can’t fix this. You can’t take away their pain. You can be with them in the midst of their pain, and that might be the greatest gift you can give.

We can’t tell you what to say. We don’t know your person or the situation. But you do, and you know the relationship you have with them.

Words that can be helpful:

  • How are you doing today?
  • I’m sorry you are going through this.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I have no idea what to say, but I care about you.
  • Do you want to talk?
  • Do you want to tell me about them?

What doesn’t help

There are phrases that seem to automatically come out of our mouths, without us even thinking about what we’re saying or why we’re saying it.

  • Platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” or “they’re in a better place now” or “good will come from this in time”
  • Anything that starts with “At least…”
  • Anything that starts with “You should…” or “You can always…”
  • I know how you feel
  • Don’t cry/be strong
  • They wouldn’t want you to be …
  • It could be worse
  • You just need to…

The problem with platitudes is there’s always this ghost sentence. This second half of the sentence that we don't say out loud but is very, very clearly implied to the grieving person.

So, if you’re grieving and I come to you and I say “At least you had them as long as you did,” the second half of the sentence there is “… so don't be so sad.”

“They would want you to be happy … so stop feeling so sad.”

The grieving person can hear the second half of the sentence even if you don't say it out loud. So a really cool and slightly uncomfortable exercise to do for yourself if you're thinking about things I might say to a grieving friend or family member, if you can add "so don't feel so bad" at the end of what you're thinking of saying, don't say it.