Why What You Say to Someone Who Is Grieving Is So Crucial

watching the rain“Everyone’s grieving is unique, and only luck helps us strike the right note in talking with the bereaved. ”

So said Mariella Frostrup in last week’s Observer magazine.

Yes, grief is definitely unique in it’s expression through each person. But do we really depend on luck if we are talking with those who have been bereaved? I don’t think so.

Even while the UK ranks first in the world in the Quality of Death Index, a measure of the quality of palliative care in 80 countries around the world, we are still sadly lacking in our ability to converse well with those who have been affected by death, whether in the form of a life threatening illness, or as a relative or friend of someone who has died.

When my husband died, I was astonished at the clumsiness of some of the responses I was met with. Anything ranging from ‘he’s in a better place now’ to ‘can I offer my condolences’ to ‘I know how you feel, my father died just recently’.

You might think that these are consoling, and they were certainly meant as consoling. I realized that at the time and didn’t take them personally, but honestly – how do you know someone who has died is in a better place? And while ‘condolences’ is a fine word to use in a letter, is it really appropriate face to face? And as to knowing how I feel – no-one can do that, even if you’ve been through the same experience, let alone a different one.

In fact there are now a few websites around which offer sound advice on what and what not to say to someone who is bereaved. The first thing, though, is to acknowledge it. It’s a huge and very uncomfortable elephant in the room otherwise.

Even if you feel discomfort, even if you’re scared of hurting that person, even if you feel ashamed and embarrassed you feel like this – be brave anyway, and acknowledge what has happened!

There is nothing more hurtful than for others to behave as if the dead person never existed.

So that’s the first thing – get over your fear, open your mouth and say something kind.

But what are those kind words?

Just as there are sites that list things NOT to say to a bereaved person, there are those that tell you WHAT to say. Here’s a few things that are okay:

  • “I’m so sorry to hear about X’
  • ‘I don’t know what to say’
  • ‘I can’t imagine how you must be feeling but I would love to help you if I can’
  • ‘I have a lovely memory of X, it’s….’
  • ‘Can I give you a hug?’

More often than not, simply being able to be with the bereaved person in silence is very acceptable. The truth is, no words are going to really help. And that of course is what is found so difficult.

It helps, however, if you yourself are relatively comfortable with dying, death and grief. And that’s what my work is about – encouraging people in various ways to come to terms with the one thing that is going to affect us all, whether we like it or not.

If you’re not able to accept this fact, then when a close friend is bereaved, you will find the challenge inversely proportional to the ease with which you feel about your own death. So please, I encourage you, do what you can to explore this now, now while you are alive and healthy.

And if you want to share any of the negative or positive things that people have said to you, pop them in the comments section below. I’ll read them all 🙂




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