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On Death & Dying:
What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

Older wife supporting her grieving older husband

For those left behind following a death, hospice care continues for more than a year. Phone calls and visits from hospice staff and resources like support groups, memorial services and reading material help loved ones heal, each in his or her own time.

Friends and neighbors can be a huge source of support, but often are unsure about what to say to someone who’s experienced the death of a loved one. Death and dying are such sensitive subjects that it is easy—even with the best of intentions—to say something that is not supportive, or even may offend.

What Not to Say to The Bereaved

Grief and bereavement experts agree that phrases such as these should be avoided:

“Everything will be OK.” Don’t diminish the mourner’s feelings; everything is not OK at the moment.

“It’s for the best” or “It was God’s will.” Clichés and platitudes are not helpful.

“I know what you’re feeling.” Each person’s grief is unique.

“You’re doing so well.” The survivor shouldn’t fear that his/her grief is letting you down.

“Call if you need anything.” Offer to do what needs doing; then follow through. Don’t put the responsibility on the bereaved.

“You’d feel better if you got rid of his/her things.” Let the survivor decide when he or she is ready.

Grieving older monther supported by daughter

How You Can Help

Saying the right thing after a death, however, is not difficult. Relax, be yourself and remember that what’s important is how the mourner feels and views things—not how you do. 

Days After a Death

In the first days after a death, don’t let feelings of helplessness keep you from reaching out. Get in touch as soon as you can—never assume there is enough support and you aren’t needed. The best thing to say at this point is probably nothing. The mourner is still in shock; everything’s a blur. Offer a hug; your affection; or a simple, sympathetic statement such as, “This must be so hard for you.” You might begin by asking about the death—“Do you want to talk about what happened last night?”—or about funeral or memorial service plans.

Weeks After Death

In the weeks after the death, when other support is gone, get in touch and keep in touch.  Even if a lot of time has passed, it is never too late to call and say, “I’ve been thinking about you. How is it going?” 

Encourage the mourner to eat well, sleep well, exercise and minimize the use of alcohol. Discourage the mourner from trying to do too much or from making life-altering decisions for now. Gently and slowly encourage the resumption of outside activities, but take your cues from the mourner. Grief work takes time, and every mourner has a unique timetable. When the mourner does return to social activities, acknowledge the death but don’t dwell on it.

Grieving young girl

Later in the Grief Process

Even later in the grief process, the most important thing you can do is to be quiet and listen. When the bereaved is crying, just be there (this is difficult, but important). When the bereaved is talking and there are long pauses, be comfortable in the silence. Pay attention to non-verbal communication, including eye contact, muscle tension, facial expression. Don’t interrupt or try to change the subject; give the bereaved all the time he or she needs. 

Resist the urge to relate this death to your own experience. Talk instead about the deceased, about your fond memories and the mourner’s memories. Don’t fear bringing up the name of the deceased; the mourner is thinking about him/her all the time. Use the deceased’s name; use the past tense; use the words dead, death and died.

If you are concerned that a mourner is not progressing through this grief, seems unable to resolve anger or guilt, or is crying excessively, there are therapists, clergy and bereavement professionals who can help. For support from VITAS Healthcare call 1.800.723.3233.

Related Articles:

Guidelines for Helping Grieving Children

Techniques Used to Assist the Bereaved