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Things To Say (and Not to Say) When Someone Dies

It seems the last few weeks I keep hearing news of tragedies. I was shocked to hear about the devastation in Southern Indiana as a result of tornados. I was heartbroken to hear of the sudden, unexpected death of a preschooler. Others close to me have lost family members unexpectedly and tragically. My Facebook feed is filled with condolences and attempts to help. 
 
Grief is a difficult process. Despite common belief, the so called "stages of grief" are not the same for everyone and they do not fall in a consistent order. People respond differently to grief. Those who want to support them are often left feeling helpless, not knowing what to do or what to say. Some people avoid funerals because they feel uncomfortable not knowing what to say. As our social word becomes more and more digital, knowing what to say may be even more important. Every situation is different, but here are some general tips that you can use whether the loss was a pet, a miscarriage, a child, a sibling, a parent, a significant other, etc. 

Things to say

  • I can't imagine what you are going through - Even if you have had a similar experience, there are variables that make each situation unique, and most people do not want to hear 'I get it'. Let the person grieving determine if you understand or have advise they would like to hear. 
  • I'm so sorry
  • There are no words - When you don't know what to say, it's ok to admit it. 
  • What can I do?
  • If you need to talk, I'm here
  • This makes me so sad - It is often comforting to hear how the loss is impacting others, so it is ok to share your own feelings.
  • It is also great to share specific memories or things you appreciated about the one that has died. 

 

Things not to say

  • I know how you feel - Even if you have had a similar experience, there are variables that make each situation unique, and most people do not want to hear 'I get it'. Let the person grieving determine if you understand or have advise they would like to hear. 
  • Avoid cliches which can often feel patronizing
    • It was his time
    • Time heals all wounds
    • Everything works together for a reason
    • God needed another angel

 

Things you can do

  • Bring food
  • Send flowers
  • Send a hand-written card 
  • Hug - Physical touch can be very powerful in healing and helping a person feel less isolated. Sometimes a touch can communicate more than you could every say. 
  • Chores - I would like to suggest that you just show up and mow the lawn or rake the leaves, but some people enjoy doing such tasks for themselves and it allows them a chance to not think. Other people may really appreciate the assistance though. It is probably best if you offer help. Consider calling and asking specifically "Would it be ok if I came over and mowed your lawn/did your laundry/cleaned your kitchen?"
What else have people said to you or done for you that you found particularly helpful or comforting?
 
 

 


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3 comments

 

Niiraj R Shah 1/27/2014 9:40 AM
Having been through my own personal experience with grief and having counselled hundreds of people through the same - one of the things I found that really helped was to ask the person what they loved most about the person who passed on. Giving the permission to talk about the person and remember them in a positive way has always been very cathartic and useful in helping people heal.
MJackson 12/10/2013 4:30 PM
Thank you for this article. When you experience a loss, it makes you realize how important words and support are to you. I want to be supportive to others when they have a loss as they have been so gracious to me and this article provided several great ways I can do this in the future for others.
Kathy G Slaughter 3/5/2012 6:01 PM
Depending on the person's spiritual perspective, offering prayers or lighting a candle at church can be a welcome gesture. Some funeral homes now include "virtual" chapels on their website. This can be an excellent space to express condolences to the family, especially if you have lost touch with them and have no other means to convey your regrets.

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