What to Say to Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One
It is common to feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who is grieving. Many people do not know what to say or do. The following are suggestions to use as a guide:
- Acknowledge the situation and express your concern. Example: “I heard about [child’s name] and I’m sorry.” Or “I just wanted to say I was sorry about [child’s name].”
- Use the child’s name as this helps keep their memory alive.
- Be genuine in your communication and don’t hide your feelings. Example: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.” Remember, caring thoughts and hugs may make the person cry, but tears are part of the healing process.
- Offer your support, and be specific. Example: “I would like to help you and your family; can I pick up your children from school this week?”
- Don’t assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day.
- Remember that a smile and “It’s good to see you” can make any person’s day a little brighter.
Comments to avoid when comforting a bereaved parent
Even though you have the best intentions when comforting someone who has experienced a loss, these often common phrases can be hurtful and aggravating to hear. Try not use the following sentiments:
- “I know how you feel.” Instead, say that “I’m sorry, I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”
- “It’s part of God’s plan.” Faith is very personal and the bereaved may not share your beliefs. It’s also not uncommon for people to question their faith during times like these.
- “Look at what you have to be thankful for” or “At least you have your other children.” They know they have things to be thankful for, but right now they are not important. And one child certainly does not replace another.
- “At least you had your child for X years.” When this was said to one of our members, she thought to herself, “And what year would you choose for your own child to die?”
- “He’s in a better place now.” It’s hard for any parent to believe that there is a better place for their child than with them.
- “This is behind you now.” The loss of a child is never behind a parent. It will always be a part of them.
- “You’ll get over it.” Although a parent will eventually move beyond acute grief, losing a child is not something a parent ever gets over.
- Statements that begin with “You should” or “You will.” These statements are too directive. Instead you could begin your comments with: “Have you thought about…” or “You might…”
- “You can have another baby.” One child cannot replace another.
How to help a grieving child
When a child in your life is experiencing grief, there are things you can do to help as a family member, family friend, or community member. If you are a parent of a grieving child, click here to learn more about how to help your child.
- Speak to parents or guardians first before speaking to children. Make sure you understand and respect what the child knows, what they don’t know, and how you can best support them in their time of need.
- Use the given name of the deceased when speaking of him or her.
- Be willing to hear and discuss a child’s feelings and encourage him or her to talk about the person who died. Recalling memories (both good ones and trouble-making ones) might have great value to one child while others might not be ready to talk about the person. Be conscious of their response and encourage the child to share with his or her parents whenever possible.
- Set aside time to check-in with the family regularly to see how they are coping. Respect information that a child may share with you in confidence but always remember that you have a responsibility to protect the child’s physical and emotional wellbeing; you may need to share some information with a parent or guardian.
- Give children facts in a simple manner – be careful not to go into too much detail. Children will ask more questions when they are ready to do so.
- Keep your involvement in the child’s daily life as routine as possible.
- Pay attention to the child’s actions and behavior. Respect family boundaries but let the child’s parents know if you notice a change that worries you.
What not to do
- Don’t force a child to publicly mourn if he or she doesn’t want to.
- Don’t give false or confusing messages, like “Sally went to sleep.”
- Don’t tell a child to stop crying because others might get upset.
- Don’t try to shield a child from the loss. Children pick up on much more than adults realize. Including them in the grieving process will help them adapt and heal.
- Don’t stifle your tears; by crying in front of your child, you send the message that it’s okay for him or her to express feelings, too. At the same time, try not to sob or lose control in front of your child; it’s too scary for him or her.
- Don’t turn your child into your personal confidante. Rely on another adult or a support group instead.
- Don’t tell a child they have grieved too long or to “get over it.”
There are many practical ways you can help a grieving person. You can offer to:
- Shop for groceries or run errands.
- Ask what the family likes to eat and offer to drop off a prearranged meal on a specific day. Best of all is to arrange a schedule for friends/neighbors to do the same.
- Help with funeral arrangements.
- Buy stamps and offer to make labels for acknowledgment cards.
- Help set up an event, memorial and/or charitable fund for the family.
- Stay in their home to take phone calls and receive guests.
- Help with insurance forms or bills.
- Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry.
- Watch their children or pick them up from school.
- Drive them wherever they need to go.
- Look after their pets.
- Go with them to a support group meeting.
- Accompany them on a walk.
- Arrange to take them to lunch or a movie with the understanding that it may be cancelled if the person is not up to it that day.
- Share an enjoyable activity (game, puzzle, art project).