One of the most common concerns people have is knowing what to say or do when a loved one dies. When it happens, even within our own families, we often don’t know what to say or do. Others don’t know what to say to us. So often, the response is to say or do nothing. The avoidance comes not out of a lack of compassion but out of a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
It’s an all-too-common dilemma that we face. Here are some counseling tips for supporting someone through this very confusing time.
Tips for Expressing Support
- Ask how the person is feeling or doing. Yes, they are grieving but the feelings that come with grief can be many and complicated. Avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. You may have experienced similar loss and can empathize but your experience is unique to you. Simply asking “how are you doing” or “how are you feeling” shows care, concern and respect for the person’s loss.
- It’s ok to say “I don’t know what to say.” That statement shows a genuineness in your caring for the person’s loss. Not every expression of condolence has to be a flowery, emotion-laden speech. Sometimes a simple act of reaching out conveys the most powerful support.
- Ask what you can do. “What can I do to support you?” Sometimes the grieving person needs support but is reluctant to reach out. At the moment, they may not know what they need. That’s ok. Offering support opens the door for reaching out later.
- Acknowledge the loss. Sometimes we hear about someone’s loss but don’t see them until much later. Acknowledging the loss expresses caring. “I heard your mom died. I’m sorry.” It’s ok to use the word “died.”
- Be willing to share silent moments. Sometimes a grieving person is not ready to talk about their pain but needs emotional support. Don’t let the discomfort of an “awkward silence” convince you that you aren’t “doing” anything for the person. One very powerful way to support someone is to simply sit with them. Your physical presence can provide a sense of calm and peace for the person in pain. A smile, a nod, the squeeze of a hand is sometimes all that is needed.
- Avoid spiritual or religious references. Unless you know for certain the person’s beliefs, making reference to things like “God’s plan” or their loved one “being in a better place” may be quite upsetting or hurtful. They may be angry or conflicted about the loss and their beliefs.
- Let the person speak about the death. We often want to avoid topics that may upset someone. The fact is, being able to talk about the experience can be cathartic and healing. They may tell the story over and over. Doing so helps the person to process and make sense of what has happened. Listen patiently.
It isn’t always easy to know what to say to when someone dies. A good rule of thumb is to speak kindly and from the heart.
If you or a loved one is struggling with a loss, a grief counselor can provide counseling and support to those grieving, or offer guidance to those who want to help support a loved one.
This article is provided by the mental health editorial team at Thriveworks, now celebrating the newly established Thriveworks Fredericksburg Counseling.