What to say – or not say – to someone who is grieving

What to say – or not say – to someone who is grieving

Knowing what to say, or what not to say to someone who is grieving isn’t easy. Words are often hard to find, hence the expression ‘I don’t know what to say’. As a celebrant, sometimes I meet several bereaved families each week, so getting this right is really important to me.

Our instinct is always to make things better, not worse, for someone who’s grieving. But many of us aren’t at all confident that we will help, or that we won’t make things worse, so sometimes we get stuck, not knowing what to do or say for the best.

If you’ve been bereaved, you are probably tuned in to what is helpful. If you haven’t but would like to be a good friend or relative, I hope this blog post will help you. It’s based purely on my observations and my personal and professional experience.

These are the two most common ways people communicate with someone who’s been bereaved.

1. Give them space

OK, obviously not that much space. It’s very natural and perfectly understandable to back off or to stay quiet. We might think that someone really wants space to grieve. However, unless we ask, how will we know for sure? Maybe we’re jumping to conclusions, following some code we’ve heard, or basing our decision on our own experience.

When we say nothing, it’s logical to think there’s no risk of upsetting someone, or saying the wrong thing. However, as Julie Andrews said in The Sound of Music: ‘nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.’

Our fear of making a mistake, of ‘not knowing what to say’ could actually be hurtful. Silence can easily be misinterpreted as not caring, which is precisely the opposite of what we want to achieve.

AND, deep-down we might also suspect that doing nothing helps us to dodge our own personal discomfort with death and loss. And that doesn’t feel good either.

2. Do Something Lovely (And Give Them Space)

Another common response is to write a card or send flowers, which is undoubtedly a kind, generous act of care and concern. We might spend a lot of time choosing a card and planning carefully what we’re going to say. We reason that we won’t be disturbing or distressing anyone by ringing their doorbell or phoning them at the wrong time. This seems like the perfect, most sensitive approach. Or, is it?

We might still have that niggling thought though. Is this just another, slightly kinder cop-out?


Is there an alternative? Yes, there is.

After a death, people can feel shocked, bewildered, numb, sad, low, confused and tired. With all that going on, they usually need more human contact, not less.

Practically, they might need help with things like shopping, gardening or driving to appointments. Has anyone ever refused a homemade cake or casserole? I don’t think so. Certainly not in my house.

Emotionally, many bereaved people appreciate the reassurance of having others around them and feeling that they are still important, while they are adjusting to their new circumstances. This process of adjustment can take as long as the proverbial bit of string. If you were to draw a graph of emotions during grief, the line would go up and down like a rollercoaster. They don’t generally follow a neat, straight line like a baby’s growth chart. Emotions are not very well-organised.

When it comes to talking to someone who is sad, our normal everyday chat is often handy. Phrases like: “how are things/ lovely day isn’t it/can you believe this traffic?” allow us to either briefly pass the time of day, or introduce a more personal chat.

When illness, death and grief come along, often in quick succession, these phrases don’t feel quite adequate. We want to say more, but how?

3: Everyone: be normal

I suggest we steamroller our worries and awkwardness and take the decision that being interested and compassionate is good enough.

As Winston Churchill famously said: KBO – Keep Buggering On. We need to treat someone who’s been bereaved, as we would normally do. Well, almost. Yes, we need to be extra-mindful of their feelings but we need to be ourselves, with all our capacity for flaws and blunders.

If we say something tactless, an immediate and sincere sorry is all that’s needed. Try not to take offence either if they don’t want to talk or are easily irritated. It’s a classic case of needing to put yourself in their shoes.

The worst thing if you’re feeling really sad and alone is people going into ‘sympathy-mode’ when they talk to you. The nodding head, sing-song voice and Bambi eyes – it’s just plain weird.

By behaving normally, we give the message that death and loss are tough but not terrifying, hard to talk about but not taboo.

We don’t need to direct the conversation towards or away from someone’s loss. We can chat about stuff like the weather, gardening, or a new TV series.

Some people crave general conversation when they’re grieving, which gives them a rest from their sadness. Others really want to talk about the person they’ve lost. We’re all different.

Is there anything we shouldn’t say to someone who’s grieving?

Here are 4 pitfalls which are potentially difficult or hurtful.

  1. “How are you?” can be a tough question to answer. Someone might feel they need to be brave to avoid embarrassing you, when they’re feeling terrible inside. If you want someone to feel they can express their emotions honestly, try saying: “How has this week been?” or “How are you feeling today?”. These are easier questions to answer honestly.
  1. Details of a death are very private. Don’t ask questions about that unless the bereaved person has brought the subject up and, in that way, given you permission.
  1. ‘At least’ may be followed by a false positive that a grieving person can’t relate to. It might point to a subconscious wish on our part to ‘tidy up death’ in our own minds. I frequently remind myself, it’s not for me to judge what seems like a good death. Here are 3 common ‘at leasts’:
  • ‘At least he didn’t suffer’ – but maybe the family never got to say goodbye.
  • ‘At least he had a good innings’ – but when someone is old, they have been loved for longer
  • ‘At least you were there at the end’ – death is not always peaceful; being in a 999 situation can be very distressing
  1. ‘Time heals’ and ‘life goes on’ are phrases that should stay in our heads. As a guideline, I think anything that might appear on a fridge magnet is probably hard to believe or annoying, especially in the early stages of grief.

Don’t say anything, just listen

We get fixated on the right words but often it’s not what we say that matters but what we don’t say. Listening can be even more powerful that talking, with none of the pitfalls.

Listening is the kindest thing we can do for someone who is sad. It says a lot. Listening with our whole attention, without interrupting or wanting to rush off, is a gift. Listening helps people to talk freely and express their emotions. It helps them to feel understood and we all love being understood. Someone may want to talk a lot or hardly at all. Either way, we can listen. If there’s a silence, it doesn’t matter.

The quality we need a lot of is empathy, when we put our own feelings aside in the effort to really understand another person. We don’t need to distract them, direct them, try to carry their load or fix anything for them. We just need to listen.

When we are truly empathetic with someone who is grieving, I’m confident that all of us are highly skilled in knowing what to say and what not to say. Maybe we don’t realise it yet.

And finally, never ever underestimate the healing power of a simple cup of tea.