How to Comfort a Grieving Friend
Many people who are blessed enough to not have experienced grief personally often have absolutely no idea of what to say to someone who has recently gone through a loss.
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon that in an attempt to say something comforting, we often fall back on cliches that we've heard before. In some cases, however, these cliches can actually hurt more than they help.
We know how hard it is to know the right thing to say or do when someone is experiencing loss. To help you help your friend, we've compiled a list of what not to say to a friend who is grieving, and what you should actually say instead.
1. “They’re In a Better Place”
This is one of the most common sayings you'll hear when a loved one passes, especially if the loved one had a longstanding illness.
The idea is pure: You're trying to offer comfort that the individual is no longer suffering and, depending on your religious beliefs, that they may be enjoying an eternal afterlife. Either way, they're at peace.
"They're in a better place," however, can be an exceptionally cruel thing to say to someone. Isn't the best place possible alive, well, and with their loved ones? We've unfortunately all likely said this to someone without realizing it, but if you're ever on the receiving end and all you want is that person back with you, it's gutting.
What to Say Instead: “I’m so sorry they’re not here with you anymore.”
Don't express relief that the person is no longer there with their loved ones. Instead, acknowledge what they lost in a straight forward way. Address the fact that their presence is missed and will be missed, because the best place for them was here.
If you absolutely need to and know that it will be received, you can express gratitude that the individual is no longer suffering, but tread lightly here to be safe.
2. “It Was God’s Will”
This is hurtful for a number of reasons, even if you believe that it may comfort you if you were in their shoes (and even if you're right!).
First, the person you're saying this to may not be religious at all, even if you believe they are. This can feel like a giant slap in the face when they're wrestling with a tragic loss.
Even if they share your beliefs, keep in mind that it's a normal part of the grieving process to struggle significantly with one's religion following a monumental loss. The last thing that you'd want to do is say something that may inadvertently push them away from a faith that may otherwise be providing them much-needed comfort.
In many cases, saying "It's God's will" typically only comforts the person saying it, not the individual grieving.
What to Say Instead: “I’m so sorry this happened.”
It's best not to try to offer any kind of justification because this can come across as trivializing a loss. Instead, just make room for how horrible this loss must be for the individuals experiencing it.
3. “I’ll Bring Dinner Tomorrow.”
If this one gave you pause, that’s okay-- bringing food and offering care for the loved ones is actually extremely helpful! It’s really most helpful, however, when you’re asking what they need and when specifically.
It's common for someone grieving a loss to be drowning in piles of casseroles immediately after the passing. Their fridges are crammed full, sometimes with food they'd never even eat. Following the memorial, however, they have little to no support.
Leaving a mourning family member to try and stuff their sixteenth lasagne into their fridge when they might really need to be handling those crucial, time-sensitive tasks like calling lawyers or organizing funerals is appreciated but can be overwhelming.
What to Say Instead: “What can I bring, and when?”
It's always a good idea to ask what the family needs. They may not even be in a place to physically open the door yet, so checking first is a good idea.
They very well may be ready for support right away in the form of a drop-off pot of chicken noodle soup. It's also entirely plausible, however, that they want things to settle down and then later have your company, too.
Don't forget to ask what the family would want. Ask about allergies and food preferences. You don't want to make your famous hot salsa if they're not so great with spicy and think that cilantro tastes like soap.
4. “Let Me Know if I Can Help”
Vague offers like this can be absolutely genuine, especially when you're the one branching out. You don't know what to offer, so you go with "help."
While you likely mean them, however, they may come across as well-meaning but flaky to someone grieving.
Remember that it's often extremely difficult to ask for help, and people simply saying "let me know if you need anything" may not be enough to prompt the mourning family to reach out, even if they want to. They may not know if you really mean it.
What to Say Instead: “I’m happy to help however you need me, whether that’s coming over to help clean, babysit, or do laundry. Whatever you need, let me know.”
When reaching out, you can make it clear that you're willing to help however they need it. To prove it, offer specific suggestions.
Cleaning. Babysitting. Laundry. Just hanging out.
By being specific, you'll show that you mean it, and they'll be more comfortable asking. Keep in mind that most people will assume that you don't want to watch their kids or help fold laundry unless you ask, even if it's what they need most.
5. “Let’s Talk About Something Happy.”
This is another unfortunate cliche that accidentally causes the supporting friend to try to dissuade their own discomfort.
It's natural to feel that the grieving individual may need to be cheered up, but this really just comes from our own discomfort in witnessing grief. The mourning person needs to work through it on their own time, and that unfortunately means feeling it.
Being told to pretend to smile or feeling obligated to act happy for others' benefit when their world feels like it's crashing down is insensitive and may cause them to feel more isolated.
We may naturally feel that the person needs to be cheered up. This often comes from our own discomfort witnessing grief; the person experiencing it needs to work through it, and being told to pretend to smile when their world feels like it’s crashing down is insensitive and may make them feel more isolated.
What to Say Instead: “I miss them. Would you like to share some of our favorite stories?”
In many cases, the person grieving the loss very much wants to talk about the loved one they lost or their grief, or both. They want to share memories, not shut up their loved one's existence into a metaphorical box, out of sight and out of mind.
Opening the door so that they can do that in any capacity is extremely helpful, and lets them know that they aren’t the only ones feeling this.
Even if they're not ready for some reason right now, they'll remember that you were later on when they are.
Comforting a friend who has recently lost a loved one can be excruciatingly hard. It can make us think about experiencing a similar loss, and it can bring up feelings of hopelessness.
Remember, though, that the friend who lost their loved one is hurting most.
When in doubt, ask clearly what you can do to help and what they need. Be genuine and authentic, even if that means simply saying "I've never experienced something like this. If you want to talk about it or not talk about it, let me know. I can be there or give you space. Is there something I can do for you now?"
Be ready to hang in there for a little while, too; they'll need your support for a little while to come.
Looking for new ways to cope with grief, or to hope a loved one that's doing so? Subscribe to our blog for more tips on how to offer comfort when it's needed most.