Death is an experience every living being will face, yet contending with it makes people deeply uncomfortable. Talking about death and supporting someone who’s grieving can leave us flustered and awkward, repeating the same tired platitudes and possibly—unconsciously—making our friends and loved ones feel even more isolated. “It’s very natural for us as human beings to want to avoid pain,” says Zainib Abdullah, psychotherapist and co-founder of WellNest Psychotherapy Services.
That’s not to say we don’t have the best intentions. Usually we don’t want to make anyone more upset than they already are, and we’re terrified of saying the wrong thing. Andrea Warnick, psychotherapist and one of the developers of Canadian Virtual Hospice’s MyGrief.ca, says generally people are well intended but they also don’t want to make it harder for the person grieving. “So they default to not saying anything at all. Or sometimes they do or say things that may not be super helpful.”
It’s inevitable that at some point, we’ll be tasked with showing up for someone and supporting them as they deal with a death in their lives. While the experience of death and loss is relative to each individual, we spoke to Warnick and Abdullah to gather some of the best general practices for what to say and not to say to someone who’s grieving.
What not to say to someone who’s dealing with death
Don’t fall into the fix-it trap
“This is where people really get stuck sometimes, [they] think that their job is to fix it,” says Warnick. “I like to remind people that, as a supporter, your job is not to fix it. Your job is to be with them through it.” The fix-it trap manifests in many ways. This includes trying to offer silver linings to the person who’s grieving, or offering anything that starts with “at least.”
“‘At least he’s not in pain, at least it didn’t happen at a different time of year.’ I say, just throw that out the window. Stop talking, nothing was ‘at least.'” However, Warnick says if the person grieving is using that type of language, that’s okay. But we should not be using it as the supporter. For Abdullah, the “at least” is a default reaction of wanting to bring attention to what we perceive as the less egregious aspects of the situation, but it should be avoided as we should not be trying to change the way a person thinks of their own loss.
Don’t give solutions or advise people
Anything that starts with “you should”—”you should get out and walk,” or “you should try and keep yourself busy”—is not particularly helpful, and also comes with an implied judgement on your part.
The very common “be strong” is also a no-go. Abdullah says it implies that different forms of expression of grief are negative. “Humans experiencing pain is not a sign of weakness, it’s just the experience of life.” Telling someone to be strong could come off as though you’re telling them that what they’re feeling right now should not be what they’re feeling, and they should feel something else that isn’t “weak.”
Don’t tell people that they’re “strong”
Similar to advising people to be strong, praising them for being strong usually means you’re praising them for emotional containment. “This is often really well intended, but misguided,” Warnick says. “A lot of my clients have said to me that it really feels like usually people are saying [they’re strong] when their emotions are in check. The flip side of that is when they’re feeling very vulnerable or raw, then they feel like they’re being weak.” She says she spends a lot of time with clients helping them reframe the idea that allowing yourself to feel your biggest, hardest feelings related to grief is actually a strength. “It’s one of the bravest things we can do.”
Don’t try to make sense of it
“Everything happens for a reason” is something most of us have heard or said at some point in our lives, but using this line on someone who’s dealing with death isn’t helpful. Again, if the grieving party is using it, that’s perfectly alright. But telling someone, “you aren’t given more than you can bear” should generally be avoided if your person hasn’t brought it up themselves. “We should not be trying to make somebody better,” Warnick says. “The goal is to be present and help [them] feel less alone in the situation because we’re there with them.”
Don’t try to one-up their pain
We’ve all likely come across this reaction—someone who responds to you sharing a hard time you’re going through by sharing their own even harder time. “It’s usually coming from a place of concern and wanting to make the person feel as though their situation is less hard,” says Warnick. “Well intended, but totally misguided.” By trying to one-up someone’s grief, you’re taking away from the support that you need to be giving them. It makes it seem like you’re minimizing what they’re experiencing right now.
Don’t use “loved one” when referring to the person who’s died
“I never use ‘loved one’ because that’s a big assumption,” Warnick says. You don’t always know the nature of the relationship that existed with the person who died.
Another important consideration: death doesn’t necessarily cause a relationship to end. As a psychotherapist, Warnick has clients write letters to the person who died and she encourages them to attend to the hard feelings. “I think we have this tendency that somebody dies and we feel that we need to put them on a pedestal and only talk about the good things.” For more complex relationships like these, it can be helpful to have somebody who’s skilled in helping people navigate difficult relationships after somebody dies. But as a supporter, being present and allowing them to express with no judgement is key. “We don’t ever want to judge people’s grief process.”
How to support someone who’s grieving
Do tend to your own grief and acknowledge your discomfort as the supporter
“When we have difficulty saying the right thing [as the supporter], acknowledging that for ourselves could be helpful because it helps us to regulate our discomfort and pain in that moment of witnessing pain. We’re human beings,” Abdullah says. “Inherently our neurobiology is built to feel the pain of someone and it’s natural. Sometimes actually just saying, ‘I know nothing I could say right now would make this easier, but I’m here for you. Or that I love you.'”
Warnick adds that one of the most important things we can do as a supporter is tend to our grief, whether it’s about the present situation or something that happened in the past. “The most challenging aspect of bearing witness is often bearing witness to our pain and our own sorrows.” As a society, we often default to keeping busy to avoid thinking about what troubles us. “One of the profound lessons I’ve learned about grief is that we actually need to chew on it and process it and feel it all in order to work our way through it. The best way we can show up for others is to attend to our own grief, as well,” Warnick says, acknowledging this process might look different for everyone.
Do be present
You don’t necessarily need to have the right words, but showing up with a willingness to talk about the person who died is crucial. Abdullah says that instead of trying to make someone feel better, really being there and allowing them to feel pain is more effective. “Letting them know that whatever they’re feeling is okay and it makes sense, because as people metabolize grief, they go through many different experiences. [That’s] any reaction, or any expression of any emotion—or a lack of expression or emotion, because some people may not express grief outwardly or in the conventional way we think of grief as sadness. So holding space and reminding them that what they’re feeling is okay.”
Do use the name of the person who died
“I think people get the sense that we don’t want to talk about the person that died but actually, when you’re grieving, you want to know that the person is not forgotten,” Abdullah says. Sharing stories and memories of the person who died, or things you loved about them or things that reminded you of them can be helpful. While Warnick acknowledges there are, of course, exceptions and nothing she says will be true for 100 percent of people across the board, she does find that the vast majority of people do not want the person who died to be forgotten and welcome the opportunity to be able to talk about them—though they might not want to have to take the lead.
“When my dad died, one of my colleagues said to me, ‘Andrea, I never met your dad, I wish I had but I would love to hear about him. I would love to learn about him. If you ever want to tell stories about him, I’d love to do that.’ And I just think that was probably one of the most helpful things that was said to me,” Warnick says. She notes that staying connected to the person who died might be easier when the person is older, and you can recall moments and memories. But when someone is dealing with the death of a baby, the same energy of not forgetting should be applied. “A friend of mine, her baby died when she was about 21 days [old]… They make sure their other kids who’ve been born since know her, know they have a big sister, [they] talk about her [and] have photos of her.”
Do use intentional language
Because of our discomfort with death, saying outright that someone died might make us uncomfortable. Warnick encourages people to use the actual language of death and dying, and to avoid euphemisms like “passed away” or “passed on.” “It shows that as a supporter I’m comfortable talking about this, I’m not going to skirt around it. I work a lot with kids who are grieving [and] there’s a ton of research and literature that is very clear that with kids, you should absolutely use the right language and not use euphemisms because it confuses the heck out of them otherwise.” But even for adults, she says using the proper language can carry some therapeutic benefit by acknowledging the reality of what happened. When she writes a condolence card, for example, she’ll write, “I was really sad to hear that your sister died.”
Do offer concrete, useful ways you can help
A common phrase thrown out to anyone going through a tough time is, “let me know if I can do anything.” But Abdullah says that generally, when people are grieving a death and everything already feels heavy, it can feel like a lot to carry. Placing the onus on the person grieving to come up with a list of things they need might be just another burden. Lightening the load might look like offering specific things like meal trains, where a group of people take turns cooking and providing food, or childcare. The key is to offer tangible things—even if the person turns you down.
Warnick mentioned some of her clients have had friends come together to cover parking fees at hospitals, which can get expensive. Offering to spend time with people, watching movies with them or going for walks with them can ease some of the burden—without them having to ask for it. “Continue to include the person for the long haul. It might be that you’re inviting the person over and they don’t want to come. You’ve had 99 times of them saying ‘no’, but still ask for 100. Don’t take it personally,” Warnick says.
Remember that there’s nothing you can say that will bring the person back, and often, nothing you can say to make the situation better. But Warnick says that bearing witness is very powerful. “While we might be thinking that we’re doing nothing, your presence alone is actually so much for somebody who’s grieving.”