As we age, the loss of family and friends to death occurs with greater frequency. Knowing what to say – or what not to say – requires skillful communication. In this article, we deal mainly with the things people commonly say, but shouldn’t.
Speaking to a member of a bereaved family can be challenging and awkward. Yet, there are things that, however well meaning, can be empty at best or hurtful at worst. And, there are alternatives that more comfortably convey the same message.
“At least he is not suffering anymore”.
Looking for the “silver lining” at a time of grieving is natural. You want to look for some positive out of a sad state of affairs. The truth is nothing you can say will fix anything really. Attempt to be comfortable with the situation. When you say “at least”, you are actually telling the person to whom you are speaking that you think this is the way they should think about the situation. This is inappropriate since you cannot tell someone else how to grieve. Grief is private and personal.
A more appropriate response is to admit, “I don’t know what to say. I just want you to know I care.” Your being present with them is the most important thing.
“Call me if you need anything.”
This apparently well-meaning statement puts the burden on the grieving to ask for help. It is vague and open-ended and ultimately insincere. It puts the burden of communication on the bereaved person. It is in the same category as “Let me know if there is anything I can do”.
An alternative that is sincere and meaningful is a proactive statement that says you will take the first step. “I am going to come by next week and take you to lunch. During this visit you can determine an actual step you can take to be of real assistance.
“How are you?”
This terribly superficial statement can only elicit an equally superficial response like, “fine” or “taking it day-by-day”. A question with more specificity will work much better, “How are you feeling today?” This gives the person to whom you are speaking an opportunity to actually engage in a more meaningful conversation without having to respond with a vague platitude.
“You’re being so strong.”
This statement sets up expectations of comportment that are difficult to deliver for a grieving person. In the process of setting up funeral arrangements it may look like they are handling the death well but may be totally stressed by having to hold up under the pressure.
Rather than pointing out the mourning person’s toughness, acknowledge their grief. Far more powerful may be, “I know you are hurting. This is really difficult.” Going further, “I miss him, too”, supports their feelings and lets them know it is all right to mourn.
“It’s been a year already.”
Seeing someone at a time beyond the funeral there is the natural tendency to want to acknowledge the death of their loved-one. Avoid the tendency to engage the societal expectation that there is some sort of timeline for grief.
What you might say as an alternative, “I know you still miss her. I do too.” That way you do not seem to gloss over grief as time passes. Instead, you acknowledge that your friend may still be in pain months or years later.
Another way to show you support is remembering the person who passed away on special dates by calling or sending a note to the person you care about.
Bottom line: Be there for the grieving person. Say less, do more.