What to Say When There Are No Words: Supporting the Bereaved with Respect and Sensitivity
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
If this phrase were a nickel, grieving people could quit their day jobs and retire to some tropical oasis.
If you’ve lived through the death of someone close to you, you’ve surely experienced the common condolence cliches:
“Time heals all wounds.”
“You have to move forward.”
“You have your whole life ahead of you.”
It’s like the presence of a grieving person presents mental paralysis to those surrounding them, temporarily turning their speech into a preprogrammed grabbag of one line sympathy card expressions.
Despite the reality that (spoiler!):
1) we are all going to die, and
2) we will all experience the death of people around us,
death and dying is still an awkward, terrifying topic of conversation for most, and these one line condolences serve as safe alternatives to unique, individualized words of care.
But let’s be real: talking to a grieving person is uncomfortable. It’s like the elephant in the room nobody wants to acknowledge. The stress of debating what to say makes our minds freeze and go blank. The anxiety of hurting a grieving person is overwhelming. It feels easier to avoid the person altogether.
So what should you say to a grieving person? The short answer: it depends.
Every bereaved individual has different needs, and those change through the process of grief. Some of us at Wild Grief recently attended a conference and heard one participant share how much he hated the word “sorry,” and wanted people to stop saying sorry to grievers. The guest lecturer at the podium however, said he still liked to express his sorrow, and felt it appropriate to use the word “sorry.”
The bottom line: your relationship with the individual and their current emotional state can determine how you respond.
But remember: there are some very obvious things NOT to say.
When my brother died by suicide in 2018, I made a decision to show grace to those trying to comfort me. I’ve felt awkward around grief too, and I didn’t want to be hard on anyone for trying to comfort me, even if they - well - sucked at it.
What I mostly heard was: “so, um...hope you’re ok,” and “sorry...just sorry...just...um...” Lame, but hey, it’s a tough topic.
And then, it came:
“It’s too bad your brother didn’t make it to heaven.”
“Your brother’s spirit is floating around tormented. Trust me, I’m experienced with suicide.”
“You have a short window to save your brother’s soul. All you need to do is go to XYZ temple and chant. Be sure to bring flowers.”
Looking back, I could have offered these folks some salt and said: “Here, let me help you rub this into the wounds of my heart.”
And this brings me to an important point: respect the religious or non-religious beliefs of the griever. Your belief (or non-belief) system may not be helpful in comforting a grieving person.
So how did I respond when these “friends” took it upon themselves to play God and judge my brother’s eternal damnation (because, afterall, they’re so experienced)? A part of me now wishes I had told them where I thought their souls were going after death. But in the moment, I took a deep breath and calmly explained my thoughts, feelings, experiences, and that of my family, and the deep peace we felt about my brother’s passing. I regret to inform you I was not heard, and was instead met with arguments:
You just don’t understand.
You might be feeling peaceful, but that’s not the reality of the situation.
This peace you’re feeling is a trick.
And this brings me to another - perhaps most important - point: LISTEN.
Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. Use your ears, not your mouth.
We often feel we have to “say something to make it better,” but perhaps another approach is to offer the griever a chance to share.
I wish we could swap “I’m sorry for your loss,” with “how are you feeling?” and “are you getting support?” The latter opens a conversation to hear feelings and needs. Or maybe you ask something like “what is the hardest part for you right now?” Say your friend responds that in this moment, they are struggling with the secondary loss of nobody to mow the lawn, or file their taxes. If you are a caring friend, you can help this bereaved individual meet those needs for support, or find resources that can.
So you’ve listened, you’ve shared your condolences. But sometimes, there truly are no words to share. Sometimes silence is the best option. Be like a loyal canine companion or feline friend and, with their consent, just sit with them.
Every Wild Grief hike begins with 10 minutes of silence. This time provides space to remember, reflect, and just be. Silence is ok!
Pro tip: as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. The act of bringing food or giving another service may be just what is needed.
In what has become my personal pet peeve cliche, this phrase rang as one of the most unhelpful after my brother’s death: “Just let me know if you need anything.”
These well-meaning folks would have regretted saying this should I have answered them honestly: “Yes, I need a box of wine, case of dark chocolate, full body massage, jumbo sized box of kleenexes (with lotion, 2-ply!), and a replacement for my broken heart. Daily. Cool? Ok, thanks!”
In my family’s grief journey, one of the most comforting gifts came from friends and neighbors who stopped by unannounced with food. No words, no listening, just a home cooked meal. It was exactly what we needed.
It’s tough to be grieving and field the range of lame, insensitive, and downright hurtful remarks. And it’s also tough to know how to meet someone in the darkest moment of their lives, and swallow the fear of further wounding a hurting heart.
As a recent griever, I can tell you: your intent matters. The people who really care, who express “I’m sorry for your loss,” with care and emotion, are the ones I remember. No matter what is said, it’s how it’s said, and the feeling behind it, that means the most.
Wild Grief hike leaders often read this poem on the trail. May these words bring you, or whoever you share it with, hope and comfort.
Let us agree
that we will not say
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.
Let us promise
we will not
time will heal
when every day
opens it anew.
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this...
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart's sole remedy
is to love still,
as if it trusts
that its own
is the rhythm
of a blessing
begin to fathom
but will save us