How do grieving people hear well-intentioned platitudes that are shared with them?
That was the subject of an article that I shared on Facebook titled, “What You Say to Someone Who’s Grieving vs. What They Hear.”
While I liked what it had to say about how our well-meaning words can actually be hurtful, some of my friends found it discouraging.
Their very valid point was that there were no positive alternatives offered, nothing like, “Say this instead.”
One friend suggested that, because I work with grieving people every day as a hospital chaplain, I should write a list of better things to say to them.
I hesitated, because every situation and every grieving person is different, and I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there are magic words that will make the hurt go away. There aren’t.
But as I thought about it, I came up with five guidelines and suggestions for words that, in most cases, I believe will help more than they hurt. With a subject as messy as grief, that’s the best we can do.
1. “I’m sorry.”
While basic, only say it if you mean it (which goes for this whole list).
I’ve heard some people in the hospital say, “I’m so sorry for your loss” the same way they would say, “Have a nice day,” and with just as little sincerity and concern.
But if you do feel sorry for someone’s loss, saying so is a good place to start.
Even naming the specific loss, though it may seem scary, can be a caring thing to do.
“I’m so sorry to hear that Bob died last night” lets Bob’s loved one know that you acknowledge the reality of the loss and that talking about it doesn’t make you uncomfortable.
Or maybe it does still make you uncomfortable, which is normal, but you’re willing to talk about it anyway. That’s great, too.
2. “How are you doing?”
Again, only ask if you really want to know, and be prepared for an honest answer.
Asking the question, and not expressing shock at the answer or telling them they shouldn’t feel that way, lets them know you genuinely care about their well-being and that you won’t run away if they let you see the times when they aren’t doing well.
3. “I hear you.”
Feeling heard can be very powerful. And often the things we say when we are grieving are too raw, sad or intimate for some people to be able to listen.
As a result, the tendency becomes to hold those things inside, and unspoken grief can do so much more damage than grief expressed.
If you can sit with someone who’s grieving and really hear what they’re expressing, it may be the most loving thing you can do for them.
You can use reflective statements to let them know you understand what they’re saying. “I hear how angry you are at him for leaving you.” “It sounds like you can’t imagine life without her.” “I hear that you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know how you’ll get through this.”
4. “Would you like to talk about (fill in the blank)?”
You may be afraid that talking about the one they’ve lost will make the person grieving even sadder.
But often those in grief want to tell stories about their loved one, as a way of keeping their memory alive and near.
This may be true for a long time after the loss, to the point that the one grieving is afraid people will grow tired of listening to their stories.
Giving them the opportunity to talk about what they loved most about him, what they regret never telling her, what they wish they’d been able to do together, can be therapeutic.
If you knew the person they are mourning, ask if you can share some of your stories as well.
It can help to know that they’re not the only one who misses that person and not the only one who will remember them.
5. “I’m here.”
While your presence communicates this, to reinforce it with your words, and perhaps a hand on their shoulder or some other appropriate physical touch, makes the message that much clearer and easier to believe.
Grief can be incredibly isolating. Those grieving need to be reminded again and again that they are not alone.
Even if they need time to themselves, which they often do, make it clear that you’re still available to them. “I’ll call you tomorrow, if that’s OK.” “Would it be all right if I bring you dinner later this week?”
This helps them know in definite terms that you will continue to make the effort to reach out to them, whereas saying something like, “Call me if you need anything,” puts the burden on them to initiate the conversation. In the exhaustion of their grief, that can feel the same as closing a door.
“I’m here” rather than “I’m here if” says that your door is open to them.
It’s a short list, but when reaching out to someone in grief, the less said the better.
There are no words that will fix everything and make them feel better. Sometimes sitting in silence and “helping them cry” – “mourning with those who mourn” (Romans 12:5) – is the most healing thing you can do.
Your caring presence, availability and willingness to listen can say more than words ever could.
Stacy Sergent is a chaplain at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is a CBF-endorsed chaplain and a graduate of Gardner-Webb Divinity School in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. A longer version of this article first appeared on her blog, Chaplain Jesus Lady, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @StacyNSergent.