How to Express Sympathy Without Making it All About You
Grief is hard. It's complicated, and it's uncomfortable, even for those who aren't experiencing the grief firsthand. We don't always know what to say or what to do, and sometimes as a result, we end up saying the wrong while and making it all about ourselves.
If you've ever been close with someone who went through grief, you'll know that it's difficult not to put yourself in their shoes. If someone loses a parent, you may relieve your own parent's passing, or worry about how horrible it would be to lose the parent you talk to three times a week. It's overwhelming, and when we're overwhelmed, we can lose sight of what matters most: the person experiencing grief most closely.
We know this is never anyone's intention, and that this is an easy (and very common) misstep to make. To help prevent this, we're going to go over how to express sympathy without making it all about you, and to put the person who needs it most at the center of focus.
As empathetic humans, we naturally make comparisons. We want to relate to the person who is experiencing loss to let them know that they're seen and that their feelings are understood in an attempt to reduce any feelings of isolation.
Comparing, though, can be hurtful when someone is grieving. Telling someone "I know exactly how that feels," about a miscarriage or losing a spouse when your experience was losing an elderly great-grandparent when you were very young can feel cruel and oblivious.
Comparisons really don't do anyone any good.
Unless you've experienced a very similar loss and can commiserate or offer helpful advice, stick to "I can't even imagine, I'm so sorry. Let me know what I can do for you."
Don't Try to Make Yourself Feel Better
When we say "it was all part of God's plan" or "they're in a better place," we may be reaching for something that sounds or feels comforting. We may even want to believe this ourselves to soothe our own discomfort.
In reality, though, statements like these are often hurtful to the person grieving, and it's something you should avoid saying at all costs.
It's also a natural human response to want to know more about why someone passed, especially if they were your age. We can feel comforted by finding out that it is unlikely to happen to us; learning that someone had a long-term chronic condition we don't have doesn't feel as scary as something like a sudden, unexpected heart attack.
Still, make sure that you don't accidentally go digging about "what caused" the death or to ask for details, even though there can be an underlying fear of it happening to us or our loved ones. It's about the person's loss, not our anxiety.
Don’t Try to Force a Person to Grieve How You Want Them To
Everyone grieves differently. Someone might seem alright during the memorial, surrounded by family, but crumble later the first time a task their partner handled comes up. Some may binge eat, while others struggle to eat anything at all.
There's no one "right" way to grieve, so try not to pass judgment if someone isn't acting exactly as you'd expect or as you believe you would under the same circumstances. Instead, just be supportive, and know that their behavior may shift suddenly or that they may be putting on a face around other people.
There is one exception here: If you believe that someone may be severely depressed to the point where they may be experiencing or prone to suicidal thoughts, push to get them the help you need. You can reach out to someone closer to them, or try to talk to them directly. If you have reason to believe that someone is an immediate threat themselves, act. You can learn more and gain resources here or call the suicide prevention hotline here.
Offer Support in a Genuine Way
Someone who is grieving may not want someone around all the time. They also might seem fine at the memorial, but don't assume that's actually the case.
Ask what they need, and offer support in a genuine way. Remember that this is about their needs, and what's convenient or comfortable.
They may need to talk about hard things, including the trauma of losing their spouse or the fear of what they'll do next. Sometimes, they might even need help with household tasks like mowing the lawn or balancing a checkbook; this is particularly common for someone who has lost a long-time spouse where household tasks were cleanly divided.
Offer support, but above all else, be okay if they don't accept it; sometimes people just need time on their own, too.
Consider Sending a Small, Thoughtful Gift
Sometimes a small gift to express your sympathy can go a long way in showing support, and there's limited risk of accidentally making it all about ourselves. We can even let them know that there's no pressure to keep it or display it.
Pick something that shows that you care and that you know they'll like. This could be a gift card to food or grocery delivery services, or something like a BarkBox for their dog.
Think about what your friend or loved one could benefit from, and what they'd appreciate. As long as you're thinking about their needs when selecting the gift, they'll appreciate the intent.
When our friend loses someone they love, it's natural to experience the grief and fear of loss yourself, especially if you knew the person who passed. It's important to remember, though, that the focus should always be supporting the person who is experiencing the loss the most.
Looking for more ways to support someone who has lost a loved one, or looking for new ways to cope with a loss of your own? Subscribe to our blog for more tips and resources.