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Dealing with Grief and Loss: What to Say and What to Avoid

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

Dealing with grief and loss is never easy, and neither is being the support system for someone going through it. You may not know what to say or how to help. It may even feel as though you say the wrong thing at every opportunity. Remember: There is never a right thing to say, and sometimes, saying nothing means just as much. Just offering to listen or sit with them may even be enough.

As you give support to your loved one, keep these tips in mind, but always do what feels right to you.

What to Say After a Loss

If you don't know where to begin, a safe bet is, “I am so sorry for your loss.” If they and you are both spiritual, say a prayer for them, their family, and/or their lost loved one as a source of comfort. Remind them that you’re here for them and that you love them.

Otherwise, do your best to offer help for specific needs. Stay away from empty promises or a generic offering like, “If you need anything, let me know.” While your intentions are true, that sort of phrasing puts the burden on them to ask for help - something that is never easy, especially in a time of crisis. Instead, use specifics. Ask if you can watch their kids for a few hours on Tuesday morning; bring them dinner on Friday evening (even better if you mention a specific recipe); run a few errands for them, or reach out to mutual friends on their behalf.

Let’s back up a minute and focus on the topic of food. Always bring food! Self-care often goes out the window while grieving, which is why it’s important that the support system ensures their loved one has the opportunity to eat and take care of themselves. If you’re able to, make plans to bring dinner once a week for a month or so - or even better, set up a meal train with friends.

Phrases to Avoid When Comforting Someone

Now that you know what to say and do, let’s consider what not to say. First, try not to be too generic. Avoid general questions like, “How are you?” or common statements like, “He’s in a better place.” Even if it’s well-meaning, those phrases may seem disingenuous or invalidating.

Second, don’t discount the bereaved’s emotions. Let them feel whatever it is they’re feeling, even if it makes you uncomfortable. This time is about them, after all! It’s natural to not like seeing your loved one upset, but you can handle it. You can offer words of comfort, knowing that they may not do much to make them feel better.

Along those same lines, avoid extinguishing your own emotions. You’re allowed to feel too. Cry if you need to cry. It’s also okay to not cry or have an outward expression of grief. Just be genuine.

Finally, don’t avoid the person grieving. Lean in. You can tolerate these feelings and what it brings up in you, no matter how difficult it may be. Conversely, don’t smother them. Check-in and see if they want you there - and please don’t take offense if the answer is no.

How to Practice Mindfulness in the Midst of Grief

Mindfulness is helpful when figuring out how best to comfort others during emotionally-charged situations. Think about what you want to say and why. Where is that thought coming from? How do you feel about this situation? Are you responding to your own anxiety and discomfort or to your loved one’s feelings?

Expanding on the importance of focusing on the bereaved’s feelings, think about what is important to them and what would be comforting for them to hear at that moment. Are they religious? Are they angry or in disbelief right now? Are they worried about the future? Any number of these things - and many more - may come up, and what you say and how you say it should reflect their experience and feelings at the moment. Validate. Validate. Validate!

For more tips about supporting someone (or yourself) through heartache, check out part one of this blog series: Dealing with Grief and Loss.

Reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, C.E.D.S. at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today!

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