How to Say the Right Thing When Someone Dies

Written by Pam MS, NCSP | Fact checked by Psychology Dictionary staff 

It's painful to watch someone you care about grieving the loss of a loved one. You want to offer comfort and support, but you aren't sure how to approach your friend or what to say. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, you may find yourself avoiding your friend, leaving him or her more isolated than ever. It takes courage to approach a grieving friend, but if you can make yourself do it, your presence and compassion can ease his or her suffering. What can you say to a grieving loved one? It doesn't have to be complicated.

"I'm So Sorry for Your Loss."

A genuine expression of sympathy may be just what your friend needs to hear. Some people, though, may become a little defensive at this statement. "What are you sorry for?" they may ask. "You didn't do anything." If you do get a response like this, remain calm and remember that anger is a normal part of the grieving process. Your friend may be lashing out at you simply because he or she sees you as a safe person. Try a neutral response along the lines of, "I know I haven't done anything wrong, but I'm still sorry you've had to go through such a painful loss."

"My Favorite Memory..."

We live in a culture that tends to deny grief and loss. Some people even avoid saying the deceased person's name to a bereaved individual, thinking that hearing the name will only make him or her more sad. In fact, the opposite is true. People who have suffered a loss need to talk about the one who has died. You can encourage this by sharing your own favorite memories of the deceased. If you didn't know the person, say something like, "I never got to meet your son Scott. Tell me what he was like."

Nothing

Sometimes there just aren't words in the language to convey what is in your heart. At those times, giving your friend a hug or a hand to cling to may be more helpful than anything you could say. Sitting quietly with your friend while he or she cries or rages or asks questions that have no answers can be a powerful gift.

Most people who are grieving would rather have you say something, even if it's not exactly the right thing, than avoid the subject altogether. There are, however, a few phrases that are best avoided. Unless you are positive that you and your friend have similar religious beliefs, don't mention God or faith. Don't tell the grieving person you know how he or she feels, even if you have been through a similar loss. Finally, don't tell the person not to cry or ask him or her to "be strong." Being with a friend during a time of great personal sadness is far from easy, but you can be assured that your caring presence is very much appreciated.

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