What To Say to a Grieving Person (So They Feel Comforted)

comforting a grieving person

Do you know what to say to someone who lost a loved one? If you feel apprehensive and uncertain about what to say or what not to say, you are not alone. Most of us are afraid of saying the wrong thing because we do not want to upset or offend the grieving person at such a difficult time. Therefore, we say nothing, leaving the bereaved person feeling isolated, unsupported, and alone. 

So, what exactly should you say to someone who is in grief? The truth is there is no one formula that you need to use. In other words, there are no rigid scripts or sentences that you should follow. Nevertheless, there are helpful principles that can guide you on what to say to someone who is grieving. 

Before we discuss the principles, there are some factors to consider when deciding what to say to a grieving person. For example, your relationship with the grieving person (acquaintance or close friend), post-loss timeline (immediately after the loss, during funeral service or one year after the loss), the cause of death, culture, and how the bereaved wants to be comforted.  

You may feel anxious or uneasy about what to say or not to say to a grieving person. But do not let fear prevent you from reaching out to someone grieving. After all, your care, compassion, and courage to lend a listening ear and helping hand triumph the spoken and unspoken words. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Here is the PRESENCES acronym—the principles to guide you on what to say to the bereaved. 

P – Be present for the bereaved

“I am here with you and for you.”

Before you say a single word, it is paramount that the grieving person knows you are there with them and for them, i.e., you are there to listen if they want to talk about their loss, you are there if they are going to cry on your shoulder, and you are there if they want to vent or share the memories. By being present mindfully, you can take the cues from the bereaved, respond compassionately, and provide hope, comfort, and healing.  

R – Recognise the losses

“I am sorry to hear that your mother/father/friend died.”

The bereaved often want someone to acknowledge their losses and share their pain. By using the word “died”, you recognise the loss and show that you are open to engaging in supportive conversation with the grieving person.

E – Empathise with their feelings

“How are you feeling now?”

The grieving person frequently experiences an emotional roller-coaster in their grief. One moment they may feel sad; another moment, they may feel angry. By asking how they feel at that moment, you are helping them to connect and express their emotions freely rather than avoid, suppress, or numb their pain. Furthermore, by empathising with their feelings, you validate their experience without judgement and criticism. Sometimes, if you are lost for words, you may say, “I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can”, to instil hope and support.    

S – Show ongoing care and support

“Next week is Paul’s first death anniversary. What can I do to support you?”

The bereaved person often receives a lot of support during the initial period of the loss leading up to the funeral. After that, the attention, care and support tend to dwindle. But this is the time when they need the support most. Therefore, if you can, keep in contact either by phone, text or in person and continue to offer care and support, particularly during significant days, such as the anniversary and birthday of the deceased.

E – Engage in practical support or assistance

“How can I best support you now?”

It can be difficult for grieving people to ask for help and support. They might feel guilty about receiving attention, fear being a burden to others, or be too exhausted to reach out. You can turn your words into actions by offering practical support or assistance. But instead of saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” you can make a specific suggestion, such as “I have cooked some chicken soup and fried rice. When can I drop by and bring you some?” You can also help shop for groceries or run errands, help with funeral arrangements, accompany them for a walk, or do an enjoyable activity together.      

N – Normalise the grieving responses

“It is normal to feel angry/hopeless/guilty/fearful.”

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. In other words, everyone grieves differently. For example, the bereaved may believe that their grief needs to fit into particular family, societal or cultural expectations. However, with unmet expectations, they may feel disappointed and think that they are “abnormal” or “going crazy”. As a supportive family or friend, you can assure them what they feel is normal, and people often go through the pendulum swings of highs and lows of emotions. 

C – Create grief rituals

“How do you want to remember and honour (deceased’s name)?”

Grief rituals are purposeful and symbolic activities that help people celebrate the life of their loved ones and express their deepest thoughts and feelings for the deceased. They help ease the pain, bring people together and create meaning through a time of loss. Some grief rituals can include lighting a candle at a specific time of the day, writing the loved one a letter, or planting a tree in your loved one’s memory. 

E – Express your concerns about maladaptive coping strategies

“I noticed that you have been drinking more than usual in the last four weeks whenever we catch up. I am concerned for your wellbeing.” 

Following the death of a loved one, the grieving person may engage in temporary maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with the loss, for example, excessive drinking or substance use, self-harm and binge eating. If you notice a persistent pattern of self-destructive behaviours, you can express your concerns in non-judgemental and compassionate manners and encourage the bereaved to seek professional help.       

S – Sit in silence

“I don’t know what to say, so I am just going to sit here with you.”    

You have heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The same goes with silence too. For the bereaved, a timely and appropriate silence speaks a thousand words. If you cannot think of something to say, say nothing. Amid intentional silence, you can offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a loving hug.