How To Talk To Grieving People – 5 Essential Guidelines

by Glynis Sherwood MEd

One of the most common concerns I hear from grieving folks is that too many people just don’t seem to know what to say to them, and end up either making inappropriate remarks or avoiding them altogether.  This can result in the griever feeling isolated and unsupported.  Fortunately talking to grieving people does not have to be complicated or confusing.  A few simple rules can guide you to having helpful and lasting connections with bereaved and grieving people.

Guideline 1 – Understand That Grieving Takes Time

Grief, especially when it comes to significant loss, is not usually over in a matter of days, weeks or even months.  The depth of an individual’s grief will depend on the meaning of the loss, which is highly personal.  So the loss of a job may be more difficult than the death of a critically ill parent – or vice versa.  The thing to remember is that grief, and in particular bereavement, is a continual, lifelong process of adjusting to loss.  Be aware that people who have sustained multiple losses over a life time may also be at greater risk for chronic grief – i.e. extremely painful and intrusive feelings of loss that don’t resolve over time.

The initial reaction to loss is typically some form of shock and psychological numbing.  This is often followed by strong feelings of grief – such as intense sadness, panic, anger and loneliness – that can feel overwhelming.  Fortunately people often rally around the grieving person at the time of their loss, when they are more likely to be in shock.  What many people don’t realize however is that the truly challenging pain of grief tends to occur weeks or months later, and can take longer to resolve.  It’s during these painful days – often lasting 1 or more years – when grievers need patient, caring and understanding friends and loved ones the most.

Guideline 2 – Keep In Touch No Matter What

It means a lot to grieving people that their friends and loved ones make an effort to stay in contact with them for the long haul.  Unfortunately many grieving people tell me that they feel abandoned by their friends and loved ones, particularly after the first few days and weeks since their loss.  Our society has an inadequate understanding of the grieving process, and unrealistic expectations about how long the pain of grief takes to resolve.  A classic example of this is that bereavement leaves granted by most employers typically last a few days, and even then are only granted to immediate family members.

It is useful to know that grief cannot be compartmentalized into a narrow time frame.  What grieving people need is ongoing caring and support.  Staying in touch by phone, inviting the griever over for dinner or out for an excursion are gestures that feel immensely gratifying.  Ask how the grieving person is doing, and let them decide how much they want to talk about it.  Grief is a lonely experience.  If the griever is widowed (married or unmarried), it is very important that their circle of friends act to include them in activities that they previously enjoyed as a couple.

Guideline 3 – Don’t Use Platitudes or Comparisons

Sadly most bereaved and grieving people have to field unhelpful or insensitive comments people make to them about their loss.  These kinds of remarks are not usually made from unkindness, but because the person uttering them does not know what to say but desires or feels obliged to reach out to the griever.  As a rule of thumb, when talking with a grieving person steer clear of the following statements :

  • “I know how you feel”  – Unfortunately, you can’t know exactly how another person feels.
  • “You can always get another husband, baby, job, pet, etc.”  – The griever isn’t interested in a replacement, they want the beloved person or thing they have lost back.
  • “He/She is with God now” – Don’t assume the griever believes in God, or even if they do, finds the idea of God comforting, as they may be thinking that God deprived them of someone they loved dearly and may be feeling betrayed by God
  •  “You should be grateful for the time you had together” – Grieving is not a sign of ingratitude.  The griever may be extremely grateful, but still want their loved one back.

Most of the time it is also wise to avoid sharing anecdotes about your own losses when someone is discussing the impact of their grief.  Being sensitive to the timing of communication helps – people in early grief are usually not able to talk about their loss philosophically, as developing any kind of perspective takes time.

Guideline 4 – Use These Two Simple Phrases To Keep Communication Channels Open

If you feel stumped about where to begin when talking to a grieving person you can simply say “I’m so sorry for your loss”.  In early grief, this may be all the griever can handle or needs to hear.  You can also ask  “How can I help”.  If griever says they don’t know, you can make suggestions based on the depth of your bond, e.g. talk, sit together quietly, go for a walk in nature, have dinner, go to a movie, baby sit, help deal with funeral details, make phone calls etc. “How can I help?” is a door opening question that should be asked throughout the grieving process, as the griever’s needs and psychological state shifts over time.  In other words, what is helpful in early grief may be different than what helps a year later.

Guideline 5 – When To Talk About The Deceased Person

Most bereaved people tell me that they love hearing positive stories about their deceased loved one.  The process of sharing fond remembrances helps to keep their memory alive and feels comforting to the bereaved person, and may help you feel better too.  In early grief, you can let the bereaved person know how much their loved one meant to you, if that’s how you truly feel.  Later in grief, when shock subsides and the bereaved person has more energy, you can share more detailed happy or amusing memories of the deceased, including images such as photographs.  Let the bereaved know that you welcome hearing about their loved one – as they feel ready, and invite them to share their memories with you.

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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in helping people recover from all kinds of Loss, Grief and Stuck Grief – aka ‘the pain that won’t go away.  I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the peace of mind you want and deserve.