When someone close to you loses a loved one, it’s difficult to find the right thing to say. It’s normal to worry that you might offend the person or say the wrong thing, but your presence and support can positively impact their grieving process. So, here are the dos and don’ts of what to say when someone dies.
The dos of what to say when someone dies
1. Talk about the person who died
When you’re speaking with someone after they’ve lost a loved one, you might feel awkward or even try to avoid talking about the person who died. But talking about them can actually help the bereaved reflect on beautiful memories and moments they shared. This conversation is also a good opportunity to acknowledge the death and your own sadness for their situation.
2. Be empathetic
Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people are feeling. Unlike sympathy, it requires you to see things from another person’s perspective and imagine yourself in their situation. Choosing to be empathetic when someone is grieving can help you find the right words to say and avoid comparing your situation to theirs.
3. Active listening
When someone is grieving, it can be helpful to replace words of wisdom with listening. You might be inclined to try and make your friend feel better by talking, but sometimes there are not enough words that can help. Actively listening is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words being said but the entire message being communicated. In turn, you will better understand what the bereaved needs, be it practical support like a home cooked meal or emotional support like space to share memories of their loved one or some quiet time alone. So when you don’t know what to say, actively listening can be beneficial.
4. Ask specific questions
Sometimes people fear asking questions because it might upset the bereaved, but it can actually allow them to find a way to express how they’re feeling. But instead of asking general questions like, “How are you?”, try asking specific questions like “Are you getting enough sleep?”, “When’s the last time you ate something?” or “Do you have enough support?” Based on their response, you will be better placed to offer them meaningful support.
5. Sit in silence
Active listening and asking specific questions are great ways to help but sitting in silence allows your friend or loved one to regain some peace. You might need to resist the urge to fill the silence with chatter, but sitting together in silence can give them a safe space to work through what’s happened, and how they feel about it.
The don’ts of what to say when someone dies
1. Don’t draw comparisons
Saying things like “I know how you feel” or “The same thing happened to me” might be tempting when trying to offer your support, but doing so could cause frustration. Drawing comparisons to personal losses might make them feel like their loss is less significant. Everyone experiences the stages of grief differently, so while you may have gone through a similar situation, it will never be the same as what your friend is experiencing.
2. Don’t diminish the grief
Avoid saying things like “Time heals all wounds” or “It’s time to move on”. Although common for supporting someone during grief, these phrases can diminish the person's feelings. Likewise, trying to minimise the pain could make them feel the need to disconnect from their support network and close off from people trying to help.
3. Don’t use clichés
Don’t use clichés such as “They’re in a better place now” or “They wouldn’t want you to be sad”. Comments that make it seem like the person’s loved one was supposed to die can be more hurtful than helpful. Regardless of whether they agree, it could make them feel like the circumstance of their loss doesn’t warrant their grief.
4. Don’t be vague about how you can help
Telling your friend to let you know when they need help puts the responsibility on them to reach out. They might not have the courage to ask when they need it most. Instead, offer specific ways to help, like “I can help watch the kids tonight” or “I can go pick up groceries for you”. If they don’t accept, check in regularly to ensure they know your help still stands
Sometimes trying to decide what to say when someone dies can keep you from reaching out. Instead of overthinking saying the wrong thing, try asking questions, offering practical help, and avoid drawing comparisons from previous experiences with loss.
If you’re worried about the bereaved, there are various grief and bereavement resources across Australia that can help.