It’s difficult to find the right words when someone we love is hurting. Sometimes, there are no right words.
Death is a taboo topic in our culture. It’s unpleasant. It hurts. The thought of it is frightening.
For the most part, we prefer to avoid it.
As a hospice volunteer, I support patients in the last days of their lives. A big part of that is supporting the family—which is typically the more challenging aspect.
I’ve learned to choose my words carefully when speaking to grieving families.
I’ve learned that while many times there are no right words, there are some wrong ones:
“I know exactly how you feel.”
No. You don’t. You couldn’t possibly know. No matter how similar their loss seems to one you have experienced in your life, you are not that person, and you did not lose their unique, individual loved one. It’s disrespectful to minimize someone’s experience with phrases like this.
“They’re in a better place now.”
It’s important to be respectful of every person’s beliefs about what happens to us when we die. Not everyone believes in heaven. Not everyone believes there is an afterlife at all. And, no matter how great the afterlife is, that person is likely only wishing for another day with them right here in their earthly body.
“I’m so sorry.”
As innocuous and well-intended as this seems, it’s pretty meaningless in this situation. It’s the default phrase that everyone will say. The family will hear it so many times, the words will completely lose their meaning. Usually this is what people say when they don’t know what else to say—sort of as a filler, like saying, “um.” Try to dig a little deeper than this.
“Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way.”
No matter what the person is feeling—blame, shame, anger, sadness, regret, hopelessness, rage—it is all perfectly normal and healthy for them to experience, witness, acknowledge, and express it openly. Never tell someone how they should or shouldn’t feel. Grief is different for everyone. While there are stages that everyone will experience—we all experience them in our own way, in our own time, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Offer comfort and validation, do not tell someone how to grieve or what to feel.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
While also well-intended, this type of question is just too vague. The grieving person will likely be so overwhelmed they won’t have a clue what to ask for. In the moments when they could actually use your help, they will probably not think to ask you. They may even be embarrassed to ask, or feel like they are a burden.
If you’d like to offer help, make a specific offer, like baby or pet sitting, preparing meals, housework, errands, calling friends and family, helping with funeral arrangements, and so on. When you see a need arise, offer to help with that particular need- do this as often as you would like to offer support to that person, as the grief process can last a long time.
Instead of using these cliché phrases, here are some things you can say to offer support to a grieving loved one:
“I know this person was really important to you.”
This type of statement acknowledges the magnitude of the loss that person is experiencing. It creates space for them to share just how important that person was. It encourages them to recall all the best things about their relationship with the person they have lost.
“I wish there was something I could say, but there are no words right now.”
This type of statement is so obvious—and so accurate. There is nothing we can say to make the pain stop. There is nothing we can say to bring that person back. But expressing that to the grieving person eliminates the need for us to fill up conversation with the statements above. It allows them space to tell us what they need, or what’s on their mind at that particular moment.
“I loved that time when…”
Any happy memory you have of the deceased person is a wonderful thing to talk about. If you didn’t know them in person, maybe you have a favorite story your friend told you about them. People at the end of their lives typically do what we call a life review. This happens through conversations in which they reconcile their years on earth. They identify all the important people, places, and experiences that made them who they are. They think about their purpose on this earth—and what they accomplished while they were here. They think about the legacy they will leave behind when they are gone. It’s important for the family to do their own review after the person has departed. Asking open ended questions is a wonderful way to encourage these conversations.
The most important way to support someone in times of loss it to be present with them. Spend time listening, as they will have much to say about what they are experiencing. Respect their need for space, they may want to be alone with their thoughts, this is perfectly normal and should not be taken personally. Help with basic needs—remind them to nourish and hydrate their body, and to rest. Offer to help with specific tasks as appropriate.
Most of all, honor their pain as sacred. It is part of them. They should express it in any way that feels natural to them. Be a safe place, and love them through their grief without judgement.
Author: Renée Dubeau
Editor: Renée Picard